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Keys to the Game: Purdue vs. Nebraska

The Boilers come off their bye week looking to grab a victory and stay in the hunt for a bowl bid

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

After a bye week that came at just the right time for the Purdue Boilermakers, they will travel to Lincoln to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a potentially season defining game in Head Coach Ryan Walters’ first season. A victory keeps Purdue realistic bowl hopes alive with games against Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Indiana still ahead of them. A loss would mean Purdue would have to win out and that is a scenario that isn’t likely with Michigan still on the schedule.

What does Purdue have to do in the game against Nebraska to win? Let’s get into the keys to the game!

1 | Contain Heinrich Haarberg as a Runner

Purdue’s defense has largely been pretty good this season, even though it is apparent that is some square pegs-round holes out there. Cam Allen is clearly playing out of position, the linebackers are still a work in progress, and injuries have limited the effectiveness of the cornerbacks. What really hurt the Boilers in those first few games against Fresno State and Syracuse was their inability to properly account for the quarterback in the running game. Watching those games back, it was usually two issues: poor defensive play calling and players not playing the scheme correctly.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

One of those things seemed to get corrected when Ryan Walters decided to take over play calling duties following some of those early season struggles and the defense has seemingly picked up a bit since. Obviously Ohio State is a bit of an outlier but Ohio State had to largely ‘earn’ those points and didn’t just score incredibly fast on any possessions. The issue of not knowing the scheme though is just getting guys reps and getting them to understand what they are supposed to do and how to defend certain looks.

Haarberg leads the Cornhuskers in passing but also in running with 424 yards total on 85 carries and 4 touchdowns. He has 15 more carries than the next player for Nebraska and at 6’5 and 215lbs, he has the size to really put pressure on a defense if he can get into the secondary. Purdue will need to stop him before he gets started and that starts with Nic Scourton and Kydran Jenkins making plays in the backfield along with linebackers Yanni Karlaftis and OC Brothers being effective in the open field as well.

Hold Haarberg to under 60 total rushing yards and Purdue can effectively contain him as a passer as he still struggles in that area of his game as just a sophomore.

2 | Put Pressure on Heinrich Haarberg as a Passer

Purdue is one of the best a dialing up and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Even against Ohio State two weeks ago, Purdue was able to get pressure on the quarterback and force them into some mistakes. Can the Boilers do the same against Nebraska? All signs point to yes.

Nebraska will be without three starting offensive lineman against the Boilers (Billy Kemp is Nebraska’s best receiver). That does not bode well for a team that will be facing a healthy Purdue defensive line that also has shown more ability from the interior with Mo Omonode and Jeffrey M’ba starting to round into form this season.

Watch for the Boilers to continue dialing up pressure as much as possible and for blitzes to come from different angles in the secondary. Purdue can generate turnovers off that pressure so if they can get 3 or more sacks and more than 5 pressures, Purdue can be more effective on defense.

3 | Establishing the Running Game to Help the Passing Game

Nebraska has one of the best defensive units when it comes to stopping the run allowing just 76.6 yards per game. That amount ranks 5th in the country, even though they gave up 249 yards against the Wolverines two weeks ago. Can Purdue get that established in this game? All signs point to yes.

Purdue will likely get top running back Tyrone Tracey back today which forms one of the more dynamic duos in the conference with Devin Mockobee. Mockobee is coming off a feature performance of 110 yards against Ohio State and a healthy Tracey allows Purdue to be more unpredictable with a high level pass catcher out of the backfield. It would be nice to see more sets with both of those players on the field as they are both effective split out as a receiver.

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Purdue doesn’t need to run for 200 yards against the Cornhuskers to win but they need to show enough effectiveness to give a threat in the play action passing game and be able to gain the tough yards on short yardage situations against a defense that gives up 38% of third down conversions. Grabbing 125 yards rushing and both back combining for 75 yards in the passing game would elevate Purdue’s chances.

4 | Find Another Threat Next to Deion Burks & TJ Sheffield

Well, Purdue appears to be without one of the more consistent receivers they have had this season in Yaseen being hurt. ARY has 25 receptions for 329 yards and as one of the few big body receivers for the Boilers, provided a good target on third down for Hudson Card. Who will step up for the Boilers? Jaron Tibbs, Jayden Dixon-Veal, Mershawn Rice, Dakota Canion?

All signs point to Mershawn Rice being the guy that Purdue will look to against a very physical defense to operate in the middle portion of the field and get tough catches using his size and experience. At 6’2 and 200 pounds, Rice can match some physicality against a very good Nebraska defense. Rice currently has 3 receptions for 50 yards.

Another potential player is tight end Garrett Miller and although he isn’t a receiver, he should be getting back into being fully healthy following his knee injury and another nasty injury to his hand earlier in the season. Miller should be able to roam around the center portion of the field behind the linebackers if the run can be established enough to be a threat.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Purdue at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ultimately though it is likely to come down to if Burks and Sheffield can make plays with the ball in their hands if Purdue wants to win at Nebraska. Hudson Card has largely done a good job of putting the ball where it needs to be outside of the Iowa game when he was clearly playing injured. Burks and Sheffield are almost photo copies of each other with Burks having some blazing speed to his game. Getting them out in space to make plays will be important for Purdue and getting them involved in the screen and run game should be a focus for Purdue.