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Nebraska at Purdue Preview

Purdue looks to get past its Rutgers funk and fix the offense.

Purdue v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Before the season started I thought there was no chance Purdue could reach a bowl game if it lost to Rutgers. A 6-6 season felt like the absolute ceiling if everything in the rebuild went perfectly, and in those six wins we needed to beat Ohio, Rutgers, and Illinois. In my mind, a 6-6 would come from beating those three, along with Missouri, Indiana, and stealing one somewhere else. Nebraska and Minnesota were good teams a year ago, Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin looked daunting, Northwestern was a 10-win team, and winning at Iowa would be a tall task.

Of course, we’re now 7 games into the season and things look different. Rutgers is at least better defensively, and our offensive performance was more of an outlier than the norm. It was a loss and it sucked. It was a game Purdue should have won and, if we were replaying it this week, I would absolutely pick Purdue because there is no way we drop that many passes again. From what we have seen, Purdue is a better team than it showed against Rutgers and it had the proverbial bad game at the wrong time.

But it is over and we must move on. The season has happened for everyone else and Purdue is capable of winning three of its last five games, especially since three are at home. The remaining games on the schedule feature teams that are a combined 5-13 in the Big Ten. This includes the two winless teams in conference play (Indiana and Illinois) and three of the five wins have come at the expense of the Illini. Up next is a Nebraska team that has been a bit of a mess all season. They started the conference 2-0 thanks to playing Rutgers and Illinois. Yes, they beat Rutgers and we didn’t, but let’s face it: Purdue beat itself in Piscataway with dropped passes, penalties, and poor third down execution.

The Cornhuskers are beatable. Their defense is actually worse than Rutgers at 30.9 points per game by a full touchdown. They have a worse run defense and pass defense and give up 11 more yards total per game. There is also the Jeff Brohm factor. Saturday in New Jersey was the first time we have seen him not call the best game and he admitted it. I know it is still early, but I trust him to actually fix things this week. Unlike Hazell, he showed actual emotion and you feel he will work to fix things. That is a departure from the previous regime.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2017 Record: 3-4, 2-3 Big Ten West

2016 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: Lost to Tennessee 38-24 in Music City Bowl

Blog Representation: Corn Nation

Series with Nebraska: Nebraska leads 3-2

Last Purdue win: 55-45 at Purdue on 10/31/2015

Last Nebraska win: 27-14 at Nebraska on 10/22/2016

Head Coach: Mike Riley (111-95, 18-15 in 3rd year at Nebraska)

The natives are restless in Lincoln because the Cornhuskers have not looked good even in their three wins. They were shaky in a 7-point home win over Arkansas State and trailed Rutgers at home deep into the fourth quarter until pulling away with 13 late points. The only time they have looked good is a win over Illinois 28-6, and Illinois has made a lot of teams look good.

The offense has been generous this season as Tanner Lee has thrown 10 interceptions, four of which have been returned for touchdowns. Northern Illinois took two back for a score in their upset win. Rutgers got one and so did Wisconsin. They are one of the worst teams in the conference in turnover margin at -4, while Purdue is still +2 after two interceptions at Rutgers.

Nebraska has struggled in the red zone (13th in the conference at 76%), stopping teams on third down (12th as opponents convert 46.6% of the time) and the run defense is uncharacteristically bad (165.9 yards per game, 11th). The only team in the conference giving up more points per game is Maryland at 36.7.

Who to Watch on Offense

Tanner Lee – QB – Earlier this week coach Brohm said Lee was the best quarterback Purdue would face aside from Lamar Jackson. I thought this was absurd until I looked at the list of QB’s we face. Drew Lock was underwhelming. Minnesota and Rutgers couldn’t pass. Alex Hornibrook is “Wisconsin game manager QB”. The list is pretty slim, so Brohm might be right. Lee has thrown for 1,709 yards and 13 TDs, but the 10 interceptions are definitely an issue. Nebraska has almost a 2:1 edge in passing yards vs. the run, and Lee has been protected with only 9 sacks given up. Purdue has 7 sacks on the season, so Lee will test the secondary.

Stanley Morgan – WR – Morgan is one of the conference’s most productive receivers with 33 receptions for 540 yards and 6 TDs. He did not play against Rutgers, but has had a touchdown in every game except Northern Illinois. In three games he has been over 100 yards receiving.

De’Mornay Pierson-El – WR – Just two years ago he tore his ACL at Purdue while celebrating someone else’s touchdown. This year he has been a solid No. 3 receiver with 26 receptions for 371 yards and 4 TDs. He is a speedy guy that is also an excellent return man.

JD Spielman – WR – Spielman is also a solid receiver with a 31-475-2 line. The 5’9” freshman is a shifty player who lit up Ohio State two weeks ago for 200 yards and a score on 11 receptions. Of course, Nebraska did lose the game by 6 touchdowns.

Devine Ozigbo – RB – Nebraska does not have the usual featured back and instead has three guys with at least 250 yards rushing, Ozigbo leads the team with 351 yards on the ground and a touchdown. The running game is only averaging 133 yards per game, 11th in the conference. By comparison, Purdue is averaging 146 yards per game even after playing Wisconsin and Michigan.

Who to Watch on Defense

Aaron Williams – DB – Williams leads the team with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, so when there is a turnover he has been involved. He also has 40 tackles to rank 3rd on the team.

Chris Weber – LB – The Nebraska defense has struggled mightily against the run, but Weber has been good with 54 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and three pass break ups. Along with Derrick Young they have been doing more of the defensive work, but as a team they have not been strong against the run and they are giving up more than 30 points per game.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Caleb Lightbourn – P – He is averaging more than 43 yards per kick and Purdue was behind the day in New Jersey because the Rutgers punter had an outstanding day pinning us deep. Purdue would then get a big play of 30-40 yards, but fail to score before punting back and starting the cycle over again. Lightbourn has downed 14 punts inside the 20.

JD Spielman – KR – Spielman is one of the better returners in the conference with a 27.9 yard average. He also has a 99 yards kickoff returned for a touchdown.

De’Mornay Pierson-El – PR – He’s not quite as good as he was a few years ago, but Pierson-El has a 63 yard punt return on the season.

Game Outlook

Purdue is facing some unexpected adversity for the first time this season. Up until last week it was all about the great turnaround coach Brohm and his staff had done. Unfortunately, we looked like the team many expected to see and it cost us a loss to Rutgers. Can Brohm fix things, especially with Grant Hermanns out at left tackle and with a group of receivers that is lacking confidence right now. Teams are swarming Jackson Anthrop, while Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou have the drops. Terry Wright is playing hurt, and both Corey Holmes and Isaac Zico have been virtual no shows. Purdue’s tight ends in Cole Herdman and Brycen Hopkins also have the drops.

Fortunately, we saw what the multi-faceted running game could do. We ran for days on Rutgers and it could be argued that we lost because we didn’t run it more. There was certainly room and opportunity for Richie Worship to get more carries when he was averaging 10 yards a rush on 5 carries. A certainly 4th and 1 near midfield as well as the two-point play come to mind.

Without question, Purdue needed to pick it up offensively, and that is odd to say with such an offensive minded coach. We have a single touchdown in the last 8 quarters and only 5 offensive touchdowns in 16 quarters Big Ten play. The defense has done its job though, playing more than well enough to win.

It was very disappointing to rack up 475 yards against Rutgers and only 12 points. The offense is moving the ball, but it is still missing that critical closing element. The next weeks are critical because not only are we playing at home against two teams we can beat, they are two of the worst defenses we face the rest of the way. Nebraska and Illinois ranked 12th and 13th in total defense, respectively. They are 11th and 14th in rushing defense.

What we have now is opportunity. If Brohm can get the team to put the Rutgers loss in the past we have two defenses we can score on. A win this week and a likely win over an awful Illinois team would go a very long way towards erasing the sting of the Rutgers loss.