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Know Thy Opponent 2021: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Purdue’s last game was against Nebraska, and it did not go well.

Syndication: LafayetteIN Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier, Lafayette Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Since joining the Big Ten Nebraska has had a very interesting little pseudo-rivalry with Purdue. The two schools had only played once before 2013, with Purdue winning way back in 1958. Since then it has been 5-3 in Nebraska’s favor, but Purdue had a very narrow loss in 2017 and last year nearly made a miraculous comeback before losing by 10. Three of the last four games have been close in the final quarter and Purdue’s win in Lincoln in 2018 was one of the better road wins of the last 15 years (not that there are many to choose from).

Now that Purdue and Nebraska share a division, this game, like so many others in the West, feels like a real toss-up. You have Wisconsin as the class of the division, Illinois mostly at the bottom, and the remaining five teams can often be thrown into a bag before the season starts and you can pick the finishing order via random draw. Nebraska is no longer NEBRASKA, and they desperately want to get back there. This year seems like a critical one for Scott Frost in that regard.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2020 Record: 3-5

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: Corn Nation

Series with Purdue: Nebraska leads 5-4

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

Last Nebraska win: 37-27 at Purdue on 12/5/2020

Head Coach: Scott Frost (12-20 in 4th year at Nebraska, 31-27 overall)

Last Season for the Cornhuskers

So far the great Scott Frost experiment has not gone well. In three seasons in Lincoln Frost has gone a dismal 12-20 with no winning seasons. “Scott Frost Day” has become a bit of a running gag as the Nebraska governor proclaimed the date of his first game as “Scott Frost Day in anticipation of a great return to glory and he promptly lost his first six games. Last year the Cornhuskers lost to the Big Ten title game participants by a combined score of 73-30 in the first two games and it was downhill from there. They did beat Penn State, Purdue, and Rutgers, but an 18 point loss to Illinois was really bad.

Technically, the last time we saw Purdue football was that 37-27 loss on December 5th, and it left a foul taste in the mouth of fans. It was the second of two consecutive games where the Boilers lost mostly as a result of very poor play (especially on defense) as opposed to what the opponent did. Less than five minutes in Purdue was down 14-0 due to a pair of horrible special teams mistakes. There was absolutely no running game as Purdue finished with -2 yards on the day.

Even while trailing 34-13 late in the third Purdue almost made a complete comeback. Payne Durham caught a TD with 1:29 left in the third, and after a stop David Bell caught an 89 yard TD to cut the lead to 7 with 12 minutes left. Unfortunately, Dedrick Mackey committed one of the dumbest penalties you will ever see to keep Nebraska’s next drive alive resulting in a field goal and Purdue never got a chance for that tying drive. If Mackey doesn’t commit that penalty Nebraska is facing a 3rd and 21 from its own 11 and Purdue has all the momentum with more than 10 minutes left. It was a play that changed everything.

Nebraska Offense

For good or ill, Adrian Martinez is back for his fourth season as a starter and is somehow only a junior. For his entire career he has been a solid dual-threat QB, but the passing game has been hit or miss. The good is that he has over 5,600 passing yards in his career. The bad is that he has just 31 TDs against 20 INTs. On the ground he has close to 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns. His results against Purdue have been mixed. His first game was really good with 323 yards passing and 2 TDs (plus a pick) with 91 yards rushing. In 2019 he had 58 yards and 2 TDs rushing to go with 247 yards passing and an interception. Last year he had 242 yards and a Td passing to go with 45 yards rushing and 2 TDs. Purdue has mostly kept him in check, but he has gotten four short field TDs the last two seasons.

What will hurt tremendously is the loss of Wan’Dale Robinson. He had 9 catches for 114 yards against Purdue last season, but has since transferred to Kentucky. He was by far their leading receiver. Levi Falck, who had 12 catches for 122 yards and a TD, is the top returning receiver. He also blocked the punt on Purdue’s first drive. Austin Allen was a great tight end with 18 catches for 236 yards and a score.

The ground game was second in the Big Ten at 201 yards per game, mostly thanks to 521 yards from Martinez himself. Indy native Markeese Stepp comes to the program as a transfer from USC and he should have an immediate impact. With Martinez the Cornhuskers are going to run a lot of RPO. That means discipline from the defensive line and linebackers for Purdue. They will run behind a line that features Cameron Jurgens at center and the massive Bryce Barnhart, who is 6’9” and 330 pounds, at right tackle.

Nebraska Defense

The Blackshirts, they are not.

Nebraska gave up almost 30 points per game last year and close to 400 yards of total offense. That was good enough for an occasional stop, but not good enough for an offense that was inconsistent and finished a whopping -11 in turnovers. Even then. Purdue did not get a single turnover against them, as the Bob Diaco defense was completely averse to takeaways in the final two games.

Nebraska does expect to have nine starters back, so experience should be a good thing. Linebackers Jojo Domann and Will Honas are back as the leading tacklers along with safety Deontai Williams. Those three combined for 166 tackles, 4 sacks, and nine pass breakups on the abbreviated season. They will hold down the middle of the field quite well. Honas also led the team in sacks with three.

There is a lot of good size up front to handle the run. Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, and Ty Robinson are a great trio to build around with plenty of rotation players around them. There needs to be more of a pass rush though, just like for Purdue.

In the secondary Williams will have Marquel Dismuke with him to handle the two safety spots. Cam Tylor-Britt has a wealth of experience at the corner position as well. Still, Purdue had a lot of success through the air last season despite a complete lack of a running game. Jack Plummer threw for 334 yards and 3 TDs on 33 of 47 passing even while playing catch up all day. He also did well before getting hurt in the 2019 game, and Aidan O’Connell filled in brilliantly for the game-winning drive that year.

Nebraska Special Teams

Senior kicker Connor Culp is one of the best in the conference. He went 13 of 15 last season and his three field goals, with a long of 49 yards, against Purdue proved to be critical. Will Przystup averaged about 40 yards per punt, which was rather pedestrian, but given that Purdue’s punting game handed the Cornhuskers 14 points last year being merely serviceable was huge.

In the return game Taylor-Britt can be dangerous on punts as he averaged an impressive 13 yards per return and his 27 yard return of Purdue’s second punt set up that score. Alante Brown will handle kickoff returns again.

Game Outlook

With this being the 8th game of the season it is obviously hard to get a feel on things, but it probably depends on where both teams are going at the time of the game. On the Purdue side of things, a best case scenario has the Boilers at 5-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Wisconsin. That would honestly be tremendous and maybe even top 25 worthy. On the other hand, if Purdue drops one of its two must-win non-conference games, struggles with Illinois, and falls in its remaining games it could be 2-5 with another directionless season. Anything in the middle is possible too.

For Nebraska, they are in the same boat. This will be game 9 for them and the only overwhelming game is a trip to Oklahoma. There are a lot of toss-ups in there with Michigan State, Northwestern, Michigan, and Minnesota. Both teams really are similar in that so many questions need to be answered first. Like so many of Purdue’s other games, I think this one is pretty even as of right now.

Way-too-early Prediction

The good news is that I am not planning to go to this one, as getting to Lincoln for my final B1G stadium visit is probably too tricky to pull off this year. That means Purdue has a chance. I am wildly optimistic so far in my picks, having Purdue at the 5-2. This is a game Purdue can win, too, especially if things turn south for the Cornhuskers. As of now though, I think we see a narrow road loss. Nebraska 31, Purdue 27