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Know Thy Opponent 2020: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Purdue looks to make it three in a row against Nebraska while taking the all-time series lead.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the opponent preview series! As always, this 12-part preview gives us a look at all 12 football opponents for the coming season. It feels appropriate to start this today because it is the first day for players back on Purdue’s campus. We’ve lost so much sports-wise with the NCAA Tournament, all spring sports that were in progress like baseball and softball, and spring football. The sports void is yawning right now, so much so I have adopted a Bundesliga team in metric football (DIE EISERN UNION!).

As of now we’re still operating as if the season in 89 days, and will continue to do so until told otherwise. That means we begin with a team that Purdue has had some pretty good success against in recent years. The Boilers beat the Cornhuskers in 2015 for the only home Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell. The last two seasons Purdue got its first ever win in Lincoln and earned a memorable comeback win on a late fourth quarter drive. It makes for an interesting season opener against a program still looking to get back to glory.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2019 Record: 5-7, 3-6 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: Corn Nation

Series with Purdue: Series Tied 4-4

Last Purdue win: 31-27 at Purdue on 11/2/2019

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

Head Coach: Scott Frost (9-15 in third year at Nebraska, 28-22 overall)

Last Season for the Cornhuskers

When Nebraska hired Scott Frost, bringing home their favored son after a successful run at Central Florida, they expected better than 9-15 after two seasons. So far, things have been disappointing. They are just 6-12 against Big Ten competition and he has not had the best track record in his comments. There was the “winnable game” comment against Purdue in 2018. There was “We should get to play Indiana more” just before… losing to Indiana 38-31 at home last year.

Last year’s 5-7 record is not that great when you look at it. A pair of wins were over Maryland and Northwestern, who went a combined 2-16 in the Big Ten. They also beat non-conference opponents Northern Illinois and South Alabama. A 42-38 win at Illinois was… okay, but arguably the best win Frost has had was 53-28 against a 7-6 Minnesota team in 2018.

Purdue is now 2-0 against Frost. DJ Knox and Markell Jones ran all over them with a heavy dose of Rondale Moore in the 42-28 win in Lincoln two years ago. Last season redshirt freshman Jack Plummer threw for 242 yards and 2 TDs before injuring his ankle. Walk-on Aidan O’Connell then came in and finished that drive for a go ahead TD. After the defense gave the lead right back he then was 6 for 6 for 62 yards in an impressive 12 play, 83 yard game-winning drive capped off by David Bell’s end around TD.

Nebraska Offense

Frost will have plenty experience for a breakout year offensively. Adrian Martinez is a two-year starter at quarterback and last season he had a pair of rushing touchdowns against Purdue. He completed just under 60% of his passes for 1,956 yards and 10 TDs, but he had 9 interceptions. He was also second on the team in rushing with 626 yards and 7 TDs. The safety net is slightly gone with Noah Vedral transferring to Rutgers, but Luke McCaffery is a promising looking backup.

The Cornhuskers have a solid, experienced running back in Dedrick Mills, who rushed for 745 yards and 10 TDs a season ago. He has more than 1,500 yards on the ground in his career with 23 total touchdowns after a good 2016 season at Georgia Tech. Purdue held him to 18 yards on 6 carries with a TD, however, but he is poised for a decent season this year.

Another threat in both the running and passing game is the versatile Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson is basically their Rondale Moore, and we even recruited him pretty heavily. He was third on the team in rushing last season with 340 yards and 3 TDs while adding 453 yards and 2 TDs on 40 receptions. These numbers came in just 10 games due to injury. JD Spielman has been a steady presence that has put up huge numbers there past three seasons as one of the conference’s best receivers. He has 170 receptions for 2,546 yards and 15 TDs and has not had a season with under 800 yards receiving. He had a pair of TD catches against Purdue in 2018. Ed Note: So much for Spielman:

Nebraska’s offensive line is going to have to do better in 2020. They gave up 28 sacks on the season. Part of that comes from Martinez being a more mobile quarterback and taking some risks, but they had some key breakdowns at times. One significant one was on 2nd and goal after Darrion Daniels had given them great field position with an intercepted a Plummer shovel pass. Martinez was sacked by Derrick Barnes, and that allowed Purdue to hold them to a critical field goal after they got a 1st and goal inside the five.

Nebraska Defense

Nebraska isn’t quite the Blackshirts anymore. The defensive numbers overall were almost equal to the offensive numbers, leading to a lot of dead even games where the Cornhuskers gained as much as they gave up. Nebraska gave up 27.75 points per game, surprisingly got gashed on the ground for 188 yards a game, and generally could not get key stops. Losing a solid pass rusher in Khalil Davis will not help, either.

Inside linebacker Will Honas is the top returning tackler. He had 73 tackles, five for loss, and a sack as the No. 2 tackler. Collin Miller, a 6’3” 245 pound senior from Fishers also emerged as a solid linebacker with 67 tackles, 5 for loss, a sack, 4 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.

Cam Taylor-Britt had a good season at cornerback with 49 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, and three interceptions. He will need to have a larger role with the departure of Lamar Jackson, but he should be fine. Dicaprio Bootle is in line for the other corner spot, while senior safety Deontai Williams is returning after a season ending injury suffered in last year’s season opener.

Along the defensive line Damion Daniels, the younger brother of Darrion, should step into a starting role as a massive 6’3”, 340 pound defensive tackle. His brother was the one that was nominated for the Piesman Trophy after his interception and great move in last year’s Purdue game. Ben Stille and Deontra Thomas should man the defensive end spots in their 3-4 alignment. Stille had three sacks a season ago while Thomas had 19 tackles in a reserve role.

Nebraska Special Teams

Nebraska was really, really bad at returning kickoffs last year. They finished the year 13th in the Big Ten at just 18.13 yards per attempt. Only Purdue was worse at just over 15 yards per return. Spielman was effective on punt returns however and even had a 76 yard return for a touchdown.

In the kicking game Nebraska somehow used SIX kickers on the season. Five of them made at least one field goal, so your guess is as good as mine as to who handles duties. Matt Waldoch was the best of the bunch, going 4 for 4 with a 41 yarder. Transfer Will Przystup will handle punting duties while also searching for stray vowels to add to his last name.

Game Outlook

This feels like an important game for both schools coming off of a disappointing season last year. Purdue was waylaid by injuries for much of the year and played a ton of freshmen. Nebraska was just disappointing in general. Both return plenty of offensive talent that could lead to some fireworks. It is always tricky to being the season with a conference game, too, especially within the division. The winner gets an important leg up in the standings while the loser is almost instantly a step back.

A big question for Purdue is also who starts at quarterback. Nebraska will almost certainly go with Martinez, but the Boilers enter the summer sprint with a three-way race between O’Connell, Plummer, and transfer Austin Burton. All three are decent, but unproven options.

Way-too-Early Prediction

Purdue has not had the best record in season openers under Jeff Brohm. In all three so far it has had an opportunity to win late but has been unable to cash in. Last year’s was the most frustrating, as the lack of any running game prevented Purdue from closing out what should have been a double digit win in Reno. There were far too many mistakes in that game, and the same was true against Northwestern in 2018. Starting on the road in conference play doesn’t give me a ton of confidence. Nebraska 31, Purdue 27