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Know thy Opponent 2017: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Two years ago Purdue surprised Nebraska. Can they do it again?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

When you look back over the last four years of Purdue football there were not many good surprises. Of Purdue’s nine victories, four were over overmatched FCS teams, two were over non-power 5 conference teams, and two were over a really bad Illinois team.

Then there was Nebraska in 2015.

Sure, the Cornhuskers weren’t great that year. They finished 6-7 with a bowl win and beat Michigan State, but overall it was a tough season. The name “Nebraska” still carries weight in the college football world though, so Purdue’s 55-45 win over the Cornhuskers on Halloween was the all-too-rare good day under Darrell Hazell. The idea of a John Shoop offense exploding for 55 points on Nebraska seems absurd, but as enjoyable as it was, this win was more the result of Ryker Fyfe having a complete meltdown at quarterback than Purdue playing out of its mind. Purdue led 42-16 entering the fourth quarter, but the Hazell stink still tried to give the game away and almost did. Had a penalty not negated a blocked extra point that was returned for two in the fourth quarter the Cornhuskers would have had the football down only 8 points with about a minute left.

So we have Nebraska and Fyfe to thank for one of the few happy memories of the Hazell era. Another one came last year against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, when Purdue ran out of the tunnel behind Gerad Parker instead of Hazell. The Cornhuskers were ranked 8th in the nation, but thanks to a long DeAngelo Yancey TD Purdue led at halftime and Purdue fans were overjoyed simply because Hazell was gone.

With the last two games being quite competitive, perhaps this year’s game is a chance for an upset.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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 (108-91, 15-11 in 3rd year at Nebraska)

Last Season for the Cornhuskers:

Last year the Cornhuskers got off to a great start at 7-0 after beating Purdue. The competition was not that stuff, however. The toughest games were against Northwestern and Wyoming, as Oregon greatly disappointed. It was a bit of a revenge tour too. They avenged ugly 2015 losses at Illinois and Purdue and finally beat Indiana for the first time in 38 years.

When Purdue played at Nebraska we were just elated that Hazell was gone. When Yancey’s 88-yard touchdown gave Purdue a 14-10 lead at halftime and Purdue actually looked prepared to play a football game against a good opponent we were shocked. Nebraska woke up in the second half to win 27-14 the result was predictable, but we were happy to actually play hard and not get blown out. Nebraska’s luck ran out a week later in a 23-17 overtime loss at Wisconsin. Big Ten title hopes were then ended in a 62-3 loss at Ohio State after that. For the 8th time in 9 years Nebraska finished with exactly 4 losses after they lost to Iowa, then Tennessee in their bowl game.

Expectations are still high this year against a weakened Big Ten West. Wisconsin is the favorite, but the Cornhuskers get the Badgers at home. They get Ohio State and Penn State from the East, so that will also be a roadblock.

Nebraska Offense

This is going to be a virtually new Nebraska team from the one that went 9-4 last year. There will be a new quarterback, running back, top receivers, and more. Most of the starters are gone from a unit that averaged 26 points per game. The long-time experienced quarterback in Tommy Armstrong is gone, and Purdue knows very well what can happen when he does not play.

So who takes over for him? Armstrong was a good runner with 512 yards rushing and 8 TDs. It looks like Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who sat out last season, will likely take over. In his two seasons at Tulane he threw for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns against 21 interceptions. The interceptions part could be critical, because Armstrong threw a lot of them. Lee also was nowhere near the rusher that Armstrong was. In fact, he finished every game in 2015 with negative rushing yards and is an appalling -287 yards for his career. If he doesn’t work out it is Fyfe, who had one of the worst game imaginable for a quarterback against Purdue, with the most experience. He did play in 8 games last season and finished with 558 yards and 4 TDs.

At running back Terrell Newby is gone after rushing for 879 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016. Tre Byrant and Mikale Wilbon have some promise. The Nebraska ground game is always strong, but Bryant ran for only 172 yards and a score last year while Wilbon had 89 yards on 15 carries.

At receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El should be 100% healthy after tearing his ACL while celebrating a teammate’s TD at Purdue in 2015. Stanley Morgan Jr., Bryan Reimers, and Keyan Williams also look to be in line to starter, but among them only Morgan has extensive experience. He had 33 receptions for 453 yards and 2 TDs last season. It makes for a very green unit.

Finally, the offensive line gave up just 15 sacks a year ago, and Corn nation seems to think it could be very good:

Nebraska returns most of its line, actually, and in looking at what’s coming up, might have a shot at having a pretty darned good line going into 2017.

Nick Gates started every game at left tackle last season, while David Knevel started the first eight games at right tackle before being injured and giving way to Cole Conrad, who started the last five. Tanner Farmer started 11 games at right guard.

Include Foster, who was injured for the start of last season, and that is a pretty decent amount of returning starting experience.

Include the potential in guys who redshirted or didn’t play a whole lot last season, and you have the makings of what might be one of the better lines Nebraska has seen in a decade.

Nebraska Defense

Nebraska’s defense has been mostly “meh” for the last few seasons, far from their legacy of being the Blackshirts. Last year they gave up 23.9 points per game, 147.8 yards per game on the ground, and 215.8 yards per game through the air. They were absolutely shredded by Ohio State and Iowa hung 40 on them.

Nebraska is going to play more of a 3-4 defense, which is fine if you have a world-class defensive tackle in the middle. Freedom Akinmoladun had four sacks last season and could develop as more of a pass rusher. Mick Stoltenburg, Carlos Davis, and Khalil Davis should also find playing time in the front three.

At linebacker Dedrick Young II had 60 tackles and four pass break-ups last season. He will play in the middle, while Marcus Newby (18 tackles, 2 sacks) will play on the outside. Chris Weber is a senior with experience and 49 tackles last season, but the change to a new scheme will bring about questions. An incoming 4-star recruit, Avery Roberts, could also play immediately.

In the back four Josh Kalu, Kieron Williams, and Aaron Williams combined for 10.5 tackles for loss, nine interceptions, and 20 breakups last year. That is a lot of production from the safety position. Chris Jones and Lamar Jackson (Thankfully, not THAT Lamar Jackson) are also pretty good corners. This is a solid unit that should have a lot of production.

Nebraska Special Teams

Caleb Lightbourn was the fill-in for what should have been a banner senior season at punter for Sam Foltz. He was okay at just under 40 yards per kick. Drew Brown was solid on field goals, going 12 of 14 and he hit from 51 against Purdue.

In the return game Pierson-El is an incredibly dangerous punt returner. He averaged 7.3 yards per return last season, but before his ACL tear he was one of the best in the country. Tre Bryant should also handle kickoff return duties.

Game Outlook

This could be a winnable game for Purdue. We can’t say that about too many games, but this is a team Purdue challenged in Lincoln last season and this year, with better preparation and playing at home against a team with a lot of questions, could be something different. There are a tone of questions offensively and on defense the front 7 is basically learning a new defense on the fly. Things could work because the Cornhuskers are a talented team, but there could be struggles. No one really knows. Mike Riley himself has been all over the map. He went from 6-7 to 9-4 in a year. Even at Oregon State he was almost consistently between 5-7 and 9-4. His teams were not often great, but they also weren’t horrid, either.

Way-too-early Prediction

I almost want to predict this as a win for Purdue, but it is not like we don’t have any questions of our own. The Cornhuskers are still quite a bit further along and do have a more talented, deeper team. This is a game they should win, but don’t be surprised if this is a home upset. Nebraska 31, Purdue 20