LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska faces a very specific, and very important, challenge this week.
Win as expected, and don’t make its life harder down the road.
Purdue (3-3, 1-2) is a mess right now. The Boilermakers have the worst run defense in the Big Ten, just fired their head coach after he went 9-33 in three and a half seasons and will come into Lincoln as 24-point underdogs.
So the challenge for Nebraska will be to take care of Purdue like the College Football Playoff Committee expects it to, without overexerting itself for No. 10 Wisconsin next week and No. 2 Ohio State the week after that.
Here’s how the Huskers and Boilermakers match up:
When Nebraska has the ball
Through six weeks, Nebraska has been one of the top offenses in the conference. The Huskers rank third in scoring, third on total offense and fourth in rushing offense. Coach Mike Riley said after practice on Thursday he wants to rededicate his offense to the run, and this week will be the week to do it.
Purdue gives up 264 yards per game on the ground and nearly six yards per carry.
Riley said he wasn’t sure how much sophomore Devine Ozigbo will play on Saturday, but senior Terrell Newby should be able to handle the load on his own. It will also be worth watching how often senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong runs, considering he wasn’t very effective coming off an ankle injury last week.
When Purdue has the ball
Last year against the Huskers, David Blough looked like Drew Brees, throwing for more than 250 yards and four touchdowns. This year, Nebraska has a vastly improved secondary that likely will help neutralize Blough’s air attack.
Riley said this week Purdue “really, really” kept Nebraska off balance with misdirection plays. Twice this year Nebraska has played offenses that thrive on misdirection in Oregon and Indiana. The Huskers’ defense has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season, and also ranks third in the conference in pass defense efficiency, behind only No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan, two of the best defenses in the country.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said during the bye week that the one thing his defense hasn’t done this year is give up big plays “over the top,” or long pass plays down field. Blough was able to get over the Huskers secondary time and time again last year.
Not sure it’ll be that way this year.
The sore spot of Nebraska is becoming clearer and clearer with each passing week.
Riley called the Nebraska punt coverage “average at best” after last week’s game. Despite a few good runs from returner De’Mornay Pierson-El, the downfield blocking to help create big plays on special teams hasn’t been there, Riley said.
Against a generally weak Purdue team, this would be a good week to try out some new schemes to see what might work down the road. From a pure talent level, Nebraska’s special teams should be better than they are. This could be a week where Pierson-El finally breaks loose.
The edge here is clearly with Riley in his staff, considering he’s on a watch list for Coach of the Year and Purdue has an interim leading the way. What is worth watching, though, is how Nebraska approaches this game on the field.
Banker said on Tuesday he wasn’t 100 percent certain what Purdue would look like offensively under interim head coach Gerad Parker. And there are a lot of questions surrounding Purdue as to what it will do differently because it relies so heavily on Blough’s arm. It will be interesting to see if Nebraska just plays its game or tries to anticipate what this Purdue squad will do. Don’t be shocked if it’s the former.
This game should be over by the third quarter. Emphasis on the word should.
Nebraska probably should have beaten Purdue last year, too, but this game is an opportunity to show how far Nebraska has come since that 55-45 loss last year at Purdue. Armstrong is playing better, the defense is playing together, the coaching staff is deliberate in its play calling and know exactly who works for what situation. The biggest difference between this year and last is comfort level, and Nebraska can show that on Saturday.
Riley mentioned Thursday that he doesn’t think his team is focused on any other team but Purdue, that this week’s preparation has solely been on the Boilermakers. But Riley also said that midway through the fourth quarter in the Wyoming game, when his team was piling on points, he started thinking about the Oregon game the following week.
Be it fourth quarter, or third, or halftime, whenever Nebraska pulls out to a big lead on Saturday, the team will end up thinking about the showdown in Madison next week. They’ll just have to make sure they don’t mess up in Lincoln first.
Chris Heady prediction: Nebraska 52, Purdue 20