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Know Thy Opponent 2018: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Purdue dropped a heartbreaker against the Cornhuskers in 2018

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, last season’s 7-6 record was fun, but it was extremely close to being an even better 9-4. Purdue dropped a game it really should have won at Rutgers, then lost at home in the final seconds to a pretty bad Nebraska team. It was a pair of losses by 3 total points. Purdue was in firm control up 24-12 with 14 minutes left, but it was one of the few times the defense failed us all season long. Tanner Lee organized an 8 play, 70-yard drive with 1:22 left to win the game on a pass to Stanley Morgan Jr. with 14 seconds left.

It was a game that Purdue let slip away. It ended up not hurting us in terms of bowl chances because we later upset Iowa in Iowa City, but it still stung. We should have won, but we let a double digit lead in the fourth quarter at home go. Now Nebraska has a new coach and is supposedly on its way back to being NEBRASKA. Scott Frost is in Lincoln after leading Central Florida to a National Title. There will be some necessary changes, but the Cornhuskers should be good again soon.

2017 Record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: Corn Nation

Series with Purdue: Nebraska leads 4-2

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

Last Nebraska win: 25-24 at Purdue on 10/28/2017

Head Coach: Scott Frost (0-0 in first season at Nebraska. 19-7 overall)

Last Season for the Cornhuskers:

After beating Purdue Nebraska closed by losing four straight games to Northwestern (in overtime) Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa. In the last three games in particular the defense was awful. It gave up 55 points per game in those three, and also gave up 56 to Ohio State and 42 to Oregon. There were a number of un-Nebraska like moments on the year. They dropped an early game to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home. They struggled greatly with Arkansas State in a 43-36 win. In conference play they only beat Illinois, Rutgers, and Purdue, and the Purdue game was about as close to a loss as you can get.

As a result, Mike Riley was fired and Frost was brought on board. It was a no brainer. Frost is the native son, former Nebraska QB, and he just left Central Florida to an undefeated season. Riley never inspired a ton of confidence, even in a 9-4 season in 2016 that included a 7-0 start. Let’s also not forget that Riley was the architect of one of the rarest things of all: A Darrell Hazell Big Ten victory.

Things will be better under Frost, but there is little question they are in the middle of a rebuild. How long will it take? Here is what the official SB Nation preview says:

While hiring a Favorite Son as a coach can backfire, Frost has one of the better lists of influences you’ll ever find. He has only two years of head coaching experience, but those were absurdly impressive; he inherited a UCF that had gone 0-12 and improved the win total by six in his first year in seven in his second.

We don’t know about Frost’s long-term program maintenance or player development. We don’t know how he’ll handle a job with outsized expectations. We don’t know how well he’ll recruit over the long haul. We don’t know how well his “speed and more speed” tactics will fare in a conference full of big defenses.

We do know that he got an A+ on his first exam. And we know that he understood the drawbacks of the NU job. This is, on paper, the best hire Nebraska has made in a long time.

Nebraska Offense

The Nebraska offense was effective at times last season. But managing only 17 points against Northern Illinois was not the high point. Lee had some moments in the sun, with his last minute drive against Purdue being great, but overall he did not produce enough to help out a maligned defense. Lee is gone now, leaving a host of questions at quarterback. Once again, from the preview:

Frost’s vision involves tempo, spread principles, and a quarterback who can balance a lot of responsibilities. He’s probably not going to have that last thing in 2018.

Here are NU’s options:

Junior walk-on Andrew Bunch

Redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia

True freshman Adrian Martinez

Gebbia and Martinez are former four-star recruits; Gebbia proved a little further along with his arm this spring, while Martinez has dazzling legs. But either or both are going to need breaking in.

There is virtually no experience at all at the quarterback position. A couple of four-star prospects are great, but they are going to have to learn a new system on the fly. This can be great, or it can lead to a disaster.

There will be time to grow behind an experienced line. Tanner Farmer is an all-Big Ten guard from last season and Jerald Foster as an honorable mention all-conference performer at the other guard spot. Four of the other top linemen in playing time are also back.

The new quarterback will also have plenty of experience at receiver, too, Morgan is back after 61 receptions for 986 yards and 10 TDs. He should be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. JD Spielman (55-830-2) also did quite a bit of work. They give the new quarterback two excellent targets to work with.

Where Nebraska really struggled last season was the running game. As a team they had 1,290 yards and 13 TDs on the ground. Classic Nebraska would have called that a good three-week period. Tre Bryant had 299 yards and 2 TDs in the first two games last year, then was sidelined with an injury. If he is back at 100% it will help a lot. Mikale Wilbon (379 yards, 6 TDs) was also able to gain experience last year.

Nebraska Defense

The entire defensive unit needs an overhaul. According to S&P, Nebraska’s defense ranked 110th nationally last season. They struggled to stop the run, couldn’t get to the quarterback, and near the bottom of the FBS level in havoc rate. It was a defense whose best result was often a dropped pass.

For better or worse, there is experience:

He’ll at least have an experienced cast. NU returns every lineman, five of seven primary linebackers, and six of eight defensive backs.

Granted, the four primary departures include two players (linebacker Chris Weber and safety Josh Kalu) who accounted for a quarter of NU’s havoc plays. Other than end Ben Stille (9.5 TFLs), it’s hard to figure out where any sort of disruptive plays are going to come from. Maybe linebacker Luke Gifford (four TFLs and two passes defensed in seven games)?

Chris Weber is gone after leading the team in tackles. Ben Stille led the team in sacks, but with only 3.5. There are not a lot of other numbers that really stand out. Even the interception numbers were low, as the team had only 9. It was a mundane at best unit last year, and by the time Nebraska hosts Purdue they may have a lot of flux on the defensive side of the ball.

Nebraska Special Teams

Caleb Lightbourn is an experienced punter that performed well, averaging 42.1 yards per punt. The Cornhuskers do need a new placekicker after Drew Brown left.

In the return game Spielman handled duties on kickoff last year and had 699 kickoff return yards. Frost will want speed out there for sure.

Game Outlook

Nebraska is one of the most questionable teams in the conference coming into 2018. There is just so much new it is hard to say how they will respond. They have a new QB. They will be breaking in a new defense with potentially a bunch of new plyers. Frost as a new coach is installing his system. How quickly does it go?

Nebraska does have the advantage of better recruiting under Riley than Purdue had under Hazell. They also did not hit bottom as far. That will help Frost. What Brohm did with Purdue in year one, with Hazell’s players, is nothing short of a miracle. If Frost is as good as advertised this can be a bowl team in year one.

Way-too-Early Prediction

Well, I am possibly going to this game, so we know it is a Purdue loss. I think Frost is going to be pretty special for them, and that can see a Brohm-like year 1 turnaround. Purdue’s own defensive questions are definite issues. I think we see another close game, with Nebraska winning it because of home field. Nebraska 24, Purdue 21