Purdue football: 5 keys for the Boilermakers vs. Nebraska
Purdue should be on edge Saturday night in Ross-Ade Stadium.
Yes, Purdue is riding high for its return home after back-to-back road upsets at Minnesota and Maryland, but it takes on another team, in Nebraska, that is feeling much better about itself than a month ago. Interim Nebraska coach Mickey Joseph has his team thinking it can compete in the wide-open Big Ten West.
If Purdue is to maintain its status among the favorites, likely with Illinois and Minnesota (although others could certainly rise to the top), it’ll need to avoid an upset. The Boilermakers are 14-point favorites Saturday night.
Let’s take a look at 5 keys for the Boilermakers:
Nebraska comes into Ross-Ade Stadium full of confidence after having won 2 straight conference games.
But the victories are against Indiana and Rutgers, teams likely to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten East who currently have a combined league record of 1-5. It will behoove the Boilermakers to try to step on the Cornhuskers early, driving a wedge into the confidence level and bringing Nebraska back to its reality.
However, that’s not been a strength of Purdue’s this season. In the 5 games against FBS opponents in the 1st half of the season, the Boilermakers are averaging only 12 points per 1st half, with the highest — 17 — having come in the win Saturday at Maryland. Purdue’s lackluster offensive starts are a reason why all 5 of its FBS games have been decided by a possession.
If the Boilermakers want to avoid that, and perhaps cover the 14-point spread, they’ll want to jump on the Cornhuskers in the opening half and not let the visitors build on what they’ve done the last couple weeks.
See o-line gel
Purdue’s offensive line was a strength in the 1st half of the season, but injuries are taking a toll.
Aidan O’Connell was sacked 5 times against the Terrapins on Saturday. Can Purdue’s new-look offensive line, which has sustained career- and season-ending injuries the last couple weeks, start to gel, or was that a sign of things to come?
Coach Jeff Brohm has been forced to shuffle the line after injuries to starting right tackle Cam Craig (his career has come to an end due to recurring back injuries) and backup Daniel Johnson (who injured a knee and is out for the season). As a result, Purdue moved left tackle Eric Miller to right tackle, where he had been a starter last year, and put right guard Mahamane Moussa at left tackle, where he made his 1st career start. Redshirt freshman Marcus Mbow started at right guard. The injuries have sapped the Boilermakers of o-line depth, which it thought was a strength but is being tested now. Only transfer Sione Finau remains as a trusted reserve, and he’s rotating in at right guard.
Against the Terrapins, Purdue gave up the 5 sacks, but not all were on the line. Once, tight end Payne Durham missed a block and on at least 2 occasions, including his fumble, O’Connell held the ball too long. But it’s worth watching Saturday against a Nebraska team that has only 10 sacks in 6 games this season, a rate that ranks only 86th in the country.
Mockobee all day
Purdue is also down in the backfield, where starting running back King Doerue will miss a 5th consecutive game with a calf injury and backup Dylan Downing will be out his 1st with a foot injury.
It leaves flashy freshman Devin Mockobee to carry a bulk of the load Saturday, with Koby Lewis, a transfer from Central Michigan, to get the backup snaps. Mockobee, a walk-on, has been great for the Boilermakers, the highlight being his near-70-yard run to seal the outcome vs. Minnesota a couple weeks ago.
But this will be his 1st start. The 6-foot, 195-pounder has plenty of flash — he has 275 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry, with 4 TDs — but probably needs another season of physical development. Can he hold up for 15 carries against a Big Ten defense? That’ll be the big question as Purdue faces Nebraska, even though the Cornhuskers rank 110th in rushing defense in the nation, giving up 186 yards per game. They’ve been much improved the last 2 games, and Purdue says it has noticed a difference on film as well after Nebraska changed defensive coordinators and then allowed only a combined 182 yards to the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights.
Turn them over
Nebraska is minus-2 in turnover margin, ranking 90th in the country.
But it’s not as if the Boilermakers have been great at holding on to the football of late. Somewhat remarkably, Purdue is 2-0 the last 2 weeks, with road victories as the underdog, despite turning the ball over a combined 6 times. Last week, after giving up a game-tying touchdown just before halftime, the Boilermakers turned the ball over on their first 3 possession of the 2nd half, with an interception and 2 fumbles.
It’s a trend that Purdue simply cannot allow to continue. Nebraska has a respectable 9 takeaways — its problem has been the turnovers too, with 11 on the season — so the Cornhuskers will get after the Boilermakers. If Purdue again loses the turnover battle, it seems sure to get burnt at some point.
For whatever reason, Joseph chastised Rutgers earlier this week, criticizing the program for announcing a sellout then having seats empty on Saturday.
He’ll face no such luxury at sold-out Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night, when it’s sure to be packed. Yes, there will be Nebraska fans in the stands — the Cornhuskers travel well — but it should be a more hostile and raucous environment than in Piscataway. If Purdue gets off to a better start than it traditionally has this season, then maybe the hole becomes too much for Nebraska.