With a combined 3-7 record, both the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Purdue Boilermakers need any win they can get at this point. Purdue has come oh so close but fallen just short over the past three weeks. Meanwhile, Nebraska continues to struggle to get out of their own way and the team appears to be in a state of disarray.
The series dates back to 1958 when Purdue shut out the Huskers 28-0 in West Lafayette. It went long-dormant before rekindling after Nebraska joined the Big Ten with the two teams meeting every year since 2013. Each program has four wins apiece, so this contest has some bragging rights behind it as well.
Who will take the lead and break their losing streak? Let's break it down.
Nebraska at Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Purdue -2
When Nebraska Has the Ball
The Huskers now feature a dual-headed hydra at quarterback with both Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey seeing time versus Iowa. Martinez was effective in completing passes, going 18-of-20 for 174 yards, but his efforts didn't result in any points. Both he and McCaffrey provided expected threats on the ground with the junior captain Martinez rushing for 28 yards and a score while the redshirt freshman gained 42.
Unfortunately, the Big Red continues to lack a rushing threat not named Wan'Dale Robinson or taking snaps from center. Dedrick Mills has been missing in action due to injury, and Sevion Morrison remains absent. Rahmir Johnson and Marvin Scott III have tried to find creases but have seen little success and combined for all of 86 yards and one score this season.
The wide receiver situation is equally perplexing. Omar Manning's face could be plastered on Lincoln-area milk cartons. Marcus Fleming showed promise early but has left the team as Frost reported during Monday's press conference. This leaves Robinson and true freshman Zavier Betts as the only true deep threats.
Tight end Austin Allen has been a pleasant surprise, but if he remains the team's second-leading receiver, it only underscores problems with the offense as is.
Nebraska's struggles up front were magnified against the Hawkeyes' defense with Cameron Jurgens' snap issues returning and missed blocks aplenty. Iowa's defensive front presented challenges by itself, but the Huskers' offensive line has shown issues long before then.
Purdue's rushing defense isn't setting the world on fire, as its 151.6 yards per game rank 54th in the nation. Considering Nebraska's unimposing ground game to date, the Boilermakers can afford to lean on Branson Deen and the defensive line — even though George Karlaftis is out after testing positive for COVID-19 — as the Huskers try to cash in using their limited options.
At this point, teams have learned by selling out to stop the run, thus forcing Nebraska's signal-callers to make quick reads and throws is a risk well worth taking. The Boilermakers' strategy will likely be no different.
When Purdue Has the Ball
The Blackshirts will have their hands full across the board this Saturday. Quarterback Jack Plummer has both David Bell and the sensational Rondale Moore to attack the Huskers' 11. Although Moore missed the first three games of the season, the duo has combined to put up 685 yards through five games.
Running back Zander Horvath also provides another significant challenge should Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander become too focused on stopping the Purdue passing attack. Horvath has the ability to gash a unit giving up over 200 yards rushing per game.
Compounding the Huskers' challenge on defense is the fact that the Boilermakers do a good job at keeping Plummer upright. Purdue has allowed 1.8 sacks per game, which is tied for fifth-lowest in the Big Ten and 42nd nationally.
Considering all the weaponry Nebraska has to account for, Chinander may opt for more multiple defensive back formations than usual and get creative with linebacker JoJo Domann. A complete team focus is necessary to keep Purdue in check — something we have yet to see the Huskers display for a full 60 minutes.
Nebraska's pass rush remains largely ineffective, meaning it'll be up to the secondary and the likes Domann to pounce on any mistakes the Boilermakers make. Purdue has ended its past two games with a negative-one turnover margin. Nebraska will need to at least double, if not triple that to secure a victory.
Fortunately for the Huskers, this shapes up as a game that can be won without repeatedly stretching the field. A controlled passing attack with the occasional chunk play through the air coupled with keeping Purdue on its heels trying to wrangle Martinez, McCaffrey, and Robinson is a solid foundation.
Continuing to utilize tight ends (Allen and Travis Vokolek) while consistently moving the chains with receivers Levi Falck, Kade Warner, and Oliver Martin gives the Big Red a chance to chew up clock. After that point, it's up to Frost to find unique ways to enable his fastest players.
As an added bonus, Nebraska fans get to see how their team performs against former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
Discipline ultimately dictates who walks off the field with their heads held high, something the Huskers have been in short supply of. Poor snaps, inaccurate passes, blown defensive calls, and penalties by the Big Red will quickly tip the scales in Purdue's favor. On paper, this still looks to be a tightly-contested back-and-forth with a few critical errors costing the loser.
But as of today, major mistakes appear to be the one thing the Huskers have down to a science.
Prediction: Purdue 31, Nebraska 27
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