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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Purdue hosts Nebraska on Halloween for what could be a fun Saturday afternoon.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

When Purdue and Nebraska played last season things quickly turned south for both teams. The Boilers played a closer-than-the-score-looked game, but lost Danny Anthrop for the season with a torn ACL. The offense was never the same after that. Nebraska won to move to 8-1, but lost three of its final three games and Bo Pelini was fired for the egregious sin of not winning more than nine games. Ameer Abdullah also was hampered with a knee injury early against Purdue.

Now the Cornhuskers are back, and they are the most consistent team in the Big Ten as we head into 2015. With their loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl it made for a seventh straight season in which the Cornhuskers lost exactly four games. In that time they were 10-4 three times with a conference championship game loss, and the other four times they were 9-4. This season could very well be the same with another 9-4 record or 10-4 record with conference title game appearance.

2014 Record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Lost to USC 45-42 in Holiday Bowl

Blog Representation: Corn Nation

Series With Purdue: Nebraska leads 2-1

Last Purdue win: 9/27/1958 28-0 at Purdue

Last Nebraska win: 11/1/2014 35-14 at Nebraska

Last Season for the Cornhuskers:

Purdue's first trip to Lincoln last season was a strange one. Nebraska got only seven points off of three early trips inside Purdue territory thanks to a blocked punt and a turnover. Purdue was able to tie it in the second quarter and had several empty trips into Nebraska territory in the second half. Yes, Nebraska won by three touchdowns, but it was one of those games that never truly felt secure until a final score with about two minutes left.

The rest of the season was impressive up to the point they beat Purdue. The only loss before that was by five at Michigan State. Nebraska then got pounded at Wisconsin, lost at home to Minnesota, and barely got by Iowa before losing its bowl game. Nine wins didn't matter, as the Pelini was gone.

Nebraska Offense

Ameer Abdullah is gone after rushing for over 1,600 yards to go with 19 touchdowns in 2014. That, and a new coaching staff, might bring about some drastic changes in the traditional ground-based attack. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is entering his junior season and he is a definite dual-threat QB. He rushed for 803 yards and 6 TDs last season while throwing for 2,695 yards and 22 scores against only 12 interceptions. Here is what Bill C. has to say about Riley, his offensive coordinator Danny Langford, and the new look:

Langsdorf had helped craft what can be called (as a compliment) a "little-league offense," as in everybody touches the ball. Langsdorf and Riley (the play-caller) spread the ball around and gave playmakers opportunities.

In 2013, that meant giving 44 carries to receivers Brandin Cooks and Victor Bolden and targeting running backs Storm Woods and Terron Woods with 104 passes. Andy Staples wrote a lovely piece about Nick Saban and the "not Xs and Os, but Jimmies and Joes" principle; well, Oregon State's offense was the personification. Figure out what your guys can do, then get them the ball in ways that allow them to do it.

That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Amani Cross and Terrell Newby will likely share duties as talented running backs. Armstrong can do a lot with his feet to move the football even if he doesn't drop back to throw. He only completed 53% of his passes and was sacked 20 times, but his running ability more than made up for this.

Nebraska's receivers are all good, but not excellent. Jordan Westerkamp and De'Mornay Pierson-El are both smaller, quicker receivers that excel in the underneath stuff. If Nebraska wants bigger targets they have Alonzo Moore, Jamal Turner, and Taariq Allen. This is going to be more of a shorter passing game that demands accuracy of Armstrong.

In addition to needing a new primary running back the Cornhuskers have to replace three offensive linemen. Alex Lewis and Zach Sterup return with a combined 23 starts in their careers, and Sterup is huge at 6'8", 320. Aside from them, the Huskers have a lot of talent (five other linemen rated as 4-star recruits), but that talent as a combined single start of experience. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Nebraska Defense

Let's be honest: there are questions here. Once again, we go to Bill C.:

Riley is a loyal guy. In Langsdorf and Mark Banker, he found two coordinators he liked and stuck with them through occasional shaky years. Banker's philosophy is like Langsdorf's on offense -- figure out what your athletes can do, and craft an identity around that -- and like Langsdorf, there have been hits and misses. Oregon State ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 25 in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012 and 65th or worse in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2014.

Banker's 2014 Oregon State defense was perilously thin, wore down over the course of a half (58th and seventh in the first and third quarters, and 103rd and 110th in the second and fourth) and struggled to stop the run.

The Beavers created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.

Meanwhile, last year's Nebraska defense created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.

Basically, Nebraska was just as likely to make a big play for a 10 yard loss as it was to give up the home run. This was on display in the Purdue game, as Austin Appleby, who is not exactly fleet of foot, had a 25 yard TD run. The top playmaker on the defense, Randy Gregory, is off to the NFL, and that is not good for a defensive line that already was not that great.

There really isn't anyone up front that was as good as Gregory was. Greg McMullen had four sacks and Maliek Collins had 4.5, but they were mostly good, not great. It is part of the reason that Nebraska gave up so many points (59 to Wisconsin, 45 to USC) in the late season swoon.

The top three linebackers should all be different. Michael Rose-Ivey returns after missing the entire 2014 season, but the other two starters are gone. Josh Banderas should move into a starting role, but this is another area of major concern.

The secondary is definitely the strength of the defense. Nate Gerry was an excellent safety with five interceptions and 68.5 tackles in 2014. Daniel Davie is a solid returnee to build around. There are a lot of upperclassmen here in three seniors and three juniors, plus a couple of four-star incoming recruits in Eric lee Jr. and Avery Anderson.

Nebraska Special Teams

Tip No. 1 for Nebraska's special teams: Do not punt to De'Mornay Pierson-El. He is probably the best punt returner in the country with a 17.5 yard per return average and three touchdowns. He had a big return against Purdue as well. He will likely take over kick return duties too. Punt it out of bounds or kick it out of the end zone around him.

Drew Brown and Sam Foltz were both solid as kicker and punter, respectively. Brown was almost automatic inside the 40 and Foltz averaged 42 yards per punt.

Game Outlook

This is a very, very interesting home game for Purdue. In reading the full Nebraska preview I see a team that lost a lot, is undergoing a coaching and philosophy change, and doesn't have a ton of proven production on either side of the ball. They will be a good team, but they are likely not unbeatable. With Purdue getting to play them at home it could make for an interesting Saturday in West Lafayette. Two years ago they crushed Purdue when the Boilers were at their nadir (that was during the "we can't even make the red zone" days). Last season Purdue was better, but still made a lot of mistakes.

This is one of the bigger question mark games on the schedule. We know Wisconsin is going to run the ball a lot. We know Minnesota is also very run heavy. Indiana and Illinois will have lousy defenses. Nebraska is a team with some good pieces, but will they fit together under a new coaching staff? It is very hard to say here four months from when they come to West Lafayette.

If anything, this is the proverbial "good feeling" game. I would be absolutely shocked if we beat Wisconsin. If we played well and beat Nebraska at home, however, I wouldn't be surprised, but they are still favored.

Prediction

Nebraska is a better team, but this could be one of those turning point games. Purdue needs to rise up and win a game at home like Virginia Tech, Minnesota, or Nebraska. That is a sign of progress. Personally, I think Minnesota is that game, but this could be close. Nebraska 30, Purdue 24