Photo Credit: John Peterson

Drake’s Takes: Evaluating Nebraska’s Chances Against Purdue

October 14, 2022

Halfway through the season, Nebraska football is 3-3. 

That fact alone isn’t as monumental on paper as it feels. The Huskers started with this record last year before dropping the final six games. In 2019, they were 4-2 with a 2-1 start in conference play before going 1-5 down the stretch. 

Of course, it’s a different context now. To reach .500, interim head coach Mickey Joseph took a team that started 1-2 with Scott Frost — two of those losses being to a Sun Belt squad and potentially the worst Big Ten team — and won two straight conference games. 

That’s more Big Ten matchups than the Huskers won all of last year. This two-game stretch is one of the more interesting in recent memory for this program, with back-to-back 2018 wins over Illinois and Michigan State coming to mind as competition. 

That leads up to Saturday, where Nebraska has a shot at continuing its momentum against Purdue. The Huskers haven’t won three straight games, conference or otherwise, since their 7-0 start in 2016 under Mike Riley. Not exactly elite company, but five seasons without such a stretch is a lot, especially when there have been ample opportunities. 

The Boilermakers provide a tougher challenge than the likes of Indiana and Rutgers. They’re 4-2 after three straight wins, the latest two over Minnesota and Maryland. Purdue is closer to the middle of the pack in the conference in terms of offense and defense, and present the best offense the Huskers have faced so far in Big Ten play. 

Barring another surprisingly strong performance by Bill Busch’s defense, this probably won’t be another game where the Huskers allow just 13 or 14 points to the opposing offense. The Nebraska secondary will be tested against a strong Purdue passing offense, and that could be even more of a worry with Quinton Newsome being a game-time decision. 

It’s hard to look at that and not subsequently look at what the team is doing with Tommi Hill. The Huskers have moved the sophomore from cornerback to wide receiver following his struggles and eventual benching at the former position. 

Hill hadn’t been great on the defensive end. But given how highly he had been praised prior to the season, you’d think it might help to have him available at that spot and hope that he can figure it out. Malcolm Hartzog has made impressive plays in both of his starts, but his size caused him to get picked on quite a bit by Rutgers. Purdue might be able to have some success targeting him too. 

But the move has been made, and it seems that he’ll be a player that sees the field on offense beginning Saturday. The wide receiver depth could use some help, especially after Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda’s entry into the transfer portal and Omar Manning’s injury.

Outside of Trey Palmer, the clear standout, Marcus Washington and Travis Vokolek have been fine enough as the next receiver options. Hill, who has been praised for his speed and route-running, could make the offense more dangerous.

At very least, I’m interested. While the drops from wide receivers should be noted, the biggest problem in the passing offense has been the offensive line. Perhaps adding another receiver who, in theory, will be able to get open quickly will help. Nebraska’s going to be facing some strong defenses in the final six games of the year, and seem to want to be able to consistently pass the ball. Anthony Grant is a good running back and will continue to get a good number of touches out of the backfield, but the rushing attack isn’t something the Huskers will lean on to win games, whether that plan be by choice or necessity.

Given what I said previously about this not being another game where Nebraska’s defense can hold the opposing offense to a few scores, the offense will need to have a good performance. The potential is there, but getting it done will be another thing.

The Huskers continuing to be competitive, regardless of the result, would be a sign that they’ll be able to hold up in most of the final six games of the year. A win on the road would really spice things up, especially ahead of back-to-back home games against Illinois and Minnesota after a bye week.

The Big Ten West has provided plenty of unexpected results this year. Nebraska, which rightfully enters as the underdog, will have the chance to bring another on Saturday night.

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