When you look at Nebraska's 3-5 record (and only their record) there is actual hope that Purdue might win a game. Of all the teams on Purdue's schedule, only they and Virginia Tech currently have a losing record. Also, Purdue is at home, but that has meant very little with Darrell Hazell's perfect unwinfeated Big Ten home record of 0-9. A closer look reveals that the Cornhuskers are much, much closer to a great season than the record suggests:
BYU L 33-28 - BYU wins on a converted Hail Mary pass as time expires
Miami L 36-33 - Nebraska rallies back from down three scores in the 4th quarter, but loses in overtime.
Illinois L 14-13 - The Illini score with 10 seconds left and Nebraska loses on an extra point.
Wisconsin L 23-21 - The Badgers kick a 46-yard field goal with 4 seconds left for the win.
Northwestern L 30-28 - The Cornhuskers fail to convert a two-point conversion with 4:23 left and Northwestern is able to run out the clock.
So yes, one could argue that if you change three plays the Cornhuskers are 7-2 and likely in the top 25. They could even be 9-0 with a little more luck. Darrell Hazell likes to preach about being "right there", but it is much easier to believe a team like Nebraska is "right there" when they have five losses by a combined 13 points and Purdue hasn't scored more than 13 points in its last two games.
Who to Watch on Offense
Tommy Armstrong - QB - There is some question as to if Armstrong will start after he missed two straight practices this week. At question is his ankle, and the Huskers could use him after he has thrown for 2,052 yards and 16 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions. For the most part Armstrong has been improved this year, cutting down on his interceptions, but he has had a nasty habit of throwing them against Purdue. Last season Purdue intercepted him twice, and in 2013 Purdue got him three times. That means five of his 27 career interceptions have come against the Boilermakers.
Armstrong has been dangerous on the ground as well with 257 yards rushing and four touchdowns. This is a massive concern because Purdue has turned non-running QBs like Matt Johnson of Bowling Green into Michael Vick with its inability to contain the pocket. Think I am kidding? Johnson has 152 yards rushing in 8 games, but had 58 against Purdue.
If Armstrong is out Nebraska will turn to Ryker Fife. Fife is a junior who has seen some mop-up action in a few games during his career, but is only 10 of 18 for 78 yards and two TDs. His only action this year was in the 48-9 win over South Alabama, where he was 5 of 7 for 33 yards with a TD and INT.
Terrell Newby - RB - This is not the traditionally strong running game that Nebraska has. Ameer Abdullah is off to the NFL. Still, Newby has been quite successful with 641 yards and 5 touchdowns in eight games. He can break the big run (He has a 69-yarder), but for the most part he is a steady back that gets 5 yards per carry.
Jordan Westerkamp - WR - Westerkamp is a steady producer with 40 receptions for 535 yards and 4 TDs. Only Alonzo Moore, who has 5 TDs (on only 17 receptions) has more TD catches. Westerkamp isn't a big receiver at only 6' tall, but he runs his routes well and gets open.
Brandon Reilly - WR - Reilly has also been solid as the number two option with 24 catches for 475 yards and two TDs. Armstrong has spread the ball around very well (seven players have at least 11 receptions), but Westerkamp and Reilly are definitely the top two options.
Who to Watch on Defense
I dread what John Shoop has planned this week, especially since his job should be incredibly easy. Nebraska is AWFUL against the pass. They rank 127th nationally against the pass, ahead of only Indiana. They have given up 2,569 yards and 12 TDs against only 5 INTs for 321 yards per game. It is not like Illinois, Wisconsin, South Alabama, Northwestern, and company are throwing the ball around like Bowling Green did. Nebraska is so bad against the pass THEY MAKE PURDUE'S 64TH RANKED PASSING DEFENSE LOOK EXCELLENT.
Conversely, Nebraska is very, very good against the run, ranking 10th nationally. They give up less than 100 yards per game on the ground and have given up only 9 rushing TDs. It should be simple. Throw. The Ball. Shoop being Shoop, however, seeing that their run defense is slightly worse than Wisconsin (by 1.8 yards per game) will think that his brilliant plan of running directly into the line against the Badgers is due for a breakout. If there is going to breakout game by David Blough this is it.
Freedom Akinmoladun - DE - Aside from having one of the best names in the history of anything, Akinmoladun leads the Cornhuskers with 4.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. Good luck trying to keep him out of the backfield.
Byerson Cockrell - S - Nebraska has the same problem our defense has had for years: a safety is their leading tackler. That means tackles are being made well down field. Cockrell has 51 tackles to lead Nebraska and 6 pass break ups.
Nate Gerry - S - Nebraska only has five interceptions on the year, but Gerry has three of them. Given that we're Purdue, expect him to get two more.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
De'Mornay Pierson-El - PR - Do not punt to Pierson-El. Just don't do it. Last year he averaged 17.5 yards per return and took three to the house. This season he missed four games with an injury, but he is back and already has a 42 yard return.
Sam Foltz - P - Foltz has been solid for Nebraska with a 45.1 yards per kick average. He has also downed 8 punts inside the 120 and has a long of 67 yards.
Drew Brown - K - Brown has been a decent kicker, going 14 of 20 as Nebraska has had to settle for a lot of field goal attempts. He also has a long of 50 and hit 5 field goals against Southern Miss.
It is probably my cynicism showing, but I do not trust this offensive coaching staff to put together a coherent game plan to attack a glaring weakness. It could not put together a running game to attack a glaring weakness in Bowling Green's run defense that, consequently, WOULD KEEP THE BALL OUT OF THEIR OFFENSE'S HANDS. It could not attack a worn down run defense with a lead against Marshall, who ranks 84th nationally against the run. It could not get yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, who is 87th nationally against the run. It could not consistently pass the ball against Bowling Green's No. 119 rated passing defense, or Michigan State's 107th rated pass defense.
Sometimes this is really as simple as "Find a weakness and exploit it". Well, Purdue is presented with a glaring, overwhelming weakness. I have very little faith Shoop can exploit it. This is a coaching staff that can't see Markell Jones is simply better than D.J. Knox (who isn't bad, but Jones is just better) and has consistently avoided giving him the ball after a breakout game at Michigan State. In three years they haven't taught receivers how to gain separation from even poor defenses (like Nebraska). They have also ruined two highly rated quarterbacks and the degradation of Blough seems well on its way.
This is before I address Purdue's defensive struggled. We can't stop the run and playing two good corners in Frankie Williams and Anthony Brown 10 yards off of receivers is maddening. Purdue might be facing a backup quarterback this week, but Greg Hudson will make things easy by playing his corners 10 yards off of two good receivers in Westerkamp and Reilly, letting them run 5 yard outs before turning around for an easy catch. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Yes, Purdue has had a bye to prepare for a team with a glaring defensive weakness and an offense that is decent, but not great. If anything, that's even worse, because Purdue has good players, but it is pretty obvious that Purdue's coordinators are ruining them. Giving Shoop and Hudson two weeks to prepare and hammer in no adjustments is almost worse. Shoop will now run even more plays into the teeth of a strong run defense and Hudson can tell his corners to play off of two good receivers even more. We have seen through 31 games under Hazell that good players get worse and things that once worked stop working. Players like DeAngelo Yancey, Austin Appleby, D.J. Knox, and more show promise when first seen, then regress. Players like Antoine Miles, who started the year strong with four sacks, or Jones, who busts big runs all the time, then get relegated to the bench. Yet, according to Hazell, now is not the time to panic.
Yes, Purdue can win this game. In fact, it should have a damn good shot at doing so. I thought the same against an injury-depleted, one-dimensional Minnesota team a few weeks ago and Purdue lost by 28 points. Nebraska then beat that same Minnesota team by 23 on its home field. Hazell, Shoop, and Hudson have consistently proven they cannot prepare for even the most obvious of weakness and their complete lack of ability to make in game adjustments gives me little confidence.
That tells me everything I need to know.