Nebraska may have fired it coach, but by the end of the weekend it could be in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West. So could Purdue. That makes this a surprisingly big game. Our friends at Corn Nation have always been accommodating with blogger interviews, and this week we get to speak with Andy Ketterson about the Cornhuskers.
T-Mill: Happy Scott Frost Da... oh. Wait. That’s right. It has been a rough year. How has this team been playing differently since the Frost news?
Andy: The attitude and focus have definitely improved and while it’s mostly speculation, I’d put it on Frost and one other firing/replacement.
Erik Chinander - defensive coordinator - was fired after the Oklahoma game and replaced by Bill Busch, special teams coach. This is Busch’s third tour of duty at Nebraska where he has previously served as a grad assistant, OLB coach, safeties coach and special teams coordinator. Prior to his taking over, the Huskers had not given up fewer than 528 yards to a D1 opponent. Busch eschewed soft zones and large coverage gaps for tight man to man and more aggressive calls - and the Huskers responded by giving up 294 yards to Indiana and 348 to Rutgers with second half shutouts in both games.
And as everyone knows, Scott Frost was replaced by Mickey Joseph who brings an entirely different type of vibe. Frost truly believed the 2021 squad was his most talented squad and he wasn’t wrong, but as the close losses piled up, he wore the frustration on his sleeve. It definitely carried into this season and rubbed off on the players who seemed to collapse a bit and take on the sense of doom which the fans and then Frost had adopted.
Mickey on the other hand simply isn’t wired that way. He brings positive energy along with a hard-nosed “take responsibility for yourself” approach, but has that way of letting the kids know it’s all about them while being the first one to step up to the mike and let everyone how he screwed up and what has to improve on his part. Some fans are already calling for his immediate full-time hire after the last 2 games which tells one how thirsty many of us are for any ray of hope. He and Busch clearly have a deep love for the place and it shows.
T-Mill: Is this team really playing better or is it a product of Indiana and Rutgers being Indiana and Rutgers?
Andy: This is the absolute perfect game to find out.
Indiana was down their top two receivers and nothing appeared too frightening about the Rutgers offense. (Apologies to their starting QB, Wahoo, NE native Noah Vedral who actually dropped daggers early with a couple of long completions and a 21-yard TD run). Still, I would have put Northwestern and Georgia Southern in that boat and they both rolled us offensively, so I was happy for the improvement.
Purdue’s offense is quite the upgrade over those, however. And last week, it was my opinion that our O-line, currently the weakest link, would have to show some improvement and win the majority of the battles against Rutgers if the rest of the season was to hold out hope for things like bowl games.
Anthony Grant was held to 47 yards, 45 of which were after contact, and Casey Thompson got clobbered a few times, so it appears not much has changed there since the beginning of the year. In most other fazes of the game, I would contend we’re matched up pretty well or at least in the ball park with Purdue, but this is the group which will truly have to improve, and quickly, or things could begin to spiral again.
T-Mill: Purdue is on a bit of a hot streak defensively, especially run defense. How does Nebraska stack up there?
Andy: The run defense has vastly improved the last two games. To be fair, Indiana most definitely prefers to go through the air and Rutgers, while committed to the run, doesn’t have a great threat there. But given how we were run over by less than stellar competition in the first few games, I am absolutely thrilled holding the two of them to a combined 139 yards in those games. Our run defense will play a big part in Saturday’s game – if we can control the run game from packages and formations which commit to stopping the pass, that will be a huge help in slowing O’Connell and Jones and company.
However, if Purdue can establish the run well enough to force the Husker D to run more balanced packages, it could be a long day of our talented but very young secondary being picked apart.
T-Mill: Aidan O’Connell got his groove back a bit last week, how does the Husker pass defense stack up?
Andy: Two things to consider there:
- The more aggressive approach mentioned above has also improved that part of defense in a big way. Yes, they give up the occasional big play, but the trade-off has been forcing mistakes as well as breaking up more passes including 4 total interceptions in the second halves of the last two games. The change in confidence is visible as the body language has flipped 180 degrees. They obviously much prefer the aggressive approach and are willing to deal with the extra risk that entails. True freshman Malcolm Hartzog from Mississippi has stepped into the starting cornerback job and is showing little fear.
- That being said, jumping from Indiana/Rutgers to Purdue is going to be a test for the new approach and attitude. Purdue will get yards through the air as well as some big plays. The question is can they put those behind them, keep things under control and continue to make second half adjustments and come up with huge turnovers? If yes, this could be an interesting game. If no, Purdue covers fairly easily.
T-Mill: Given the craptastic nature of the B1G West can the Huskers still make a bowl game?
Much like I answered question 2 above, it’s even more true here. Getting our feet back under us and reversing a somewhat cursed/doomed vibe with those last two wins was fine and good. And if I’m honest it was not at all as easy as it looked on paper. But that being said, everything hits a new degree of difficulty Saturday night and for the rest of the season, craptastic division or not.
I’m not yet bought into Illinois and still think Purdue is the best team in the west, just as I did in the pre-season. If we can March into West Lafayette and pull the upset in a night game atmosphere, then we have an easy answer to that question and the sky’s the limit.
But if we lose, then how we lose will say everything. If it’s a loss but we cover the spread, the boys battle, keep things in reach (okay, this is sounding like our last six games in 2021, but bear with me) and walk out of there with hard-fought loss where they kept their composure and didn’t beat themselves, then the team and coaches will continue to believe in what they’re doing and a 3-2 finish will seem doable.
However, a bad beat in which we lose by a few scores and help Purdue do it as well as not doing any of the things above could possibly take all the wind out of the sails and send depression drinking in Nebraska back to its previously lethal levels.
Okay, a win would be just as lethal, but we’d die smiling.
T-Mill: What is your call for Saturday?
Andy: The offensive line play or lack of it stops me from making the keyboard spit fire as I fearlessly predict a trajectory-altering upset. Purdue’s defense is salty, especially against the run and if the score starts to rise, despite some nice skill-position weapons, we can’t go blow-for-blow without establishing a ground game with Anthony Grant (who I truly feel a little bad for – I think he’s a 1500-1800 yard rusher with an half-decent O-line) and giving Casey Thompson time to make a couple reads.
That being said, I am believing in Mickey’s ability to get his message across and the improvement in the basics and the little things since he took over, most notably, tackling. O’Connell’s air attack and a boisterous night road crowd might be a little too much to overcome, but the ‘Skers will make a 4th quarter run, come away knowing they can play with anyone in the division and believe some post-regular season possibilities are still achievable. Purdue 28 Huskers 23