Nebraska is back on the road and headed East. The Huskers travel to West Lafayette, Indiana, for a 6:30 p.m. clash with Purdue in the second consecutive road game and the Huskers’ third consecutive night game.
The only thing standing between the Huskers (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) and their first three-game conference winning streak since 2016 is Purdue.
And it’s a potent Purdue (4-2, 2-1). It’s a veteran-led Boilermakers team led by veteran head coach Jeff Brahm. Nebraska head coach Mickey Joseph said he doesn’t know Brahm personally but knows him to be a good play caller and complimented the job he’s done at Purdue.
“They’re about seven points away from being undefeated,” Joseph said on Thursday. “They’re really good on offense, all phases of the game. We’re going to have to play well when we go there.”
Sixth-year senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell helms the Boilermaker offense. He’s thrown for 1,559 yards with a 10-4 touchdown-interception ratio. Charlie Jones (50 catches, 603 yards) is O’Connell’s established top target but Purdue likes to incorporate tight ends. Tight end Payne Durham is second on the team with 280 yards following a season-high 109 against Maryland last week.
Devin Mockobee (275 yards) and Dylan Drowning (249) lead a complimentary running attack, although the Boilermakers struggle finding consistency on the ground. When incorporating sack yards on O’Connell, they ran for 13 yards last week.
“That is kind of our big main focus as a defense is stop the run and make them earn their way and make them one-dimensional and that that they are a passing only team,” Nebraska defensive tackle Ty Robinson said Tuesday. “I know they have a solid scheme and they have a great coach over there and a sixth-year quarterback so they are pretty solid.”
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bill Busch said Purdue is “a ridiculously gifted football team,” and should pose the biggest test since Oklahoma. Busch is familiar with Purdue’s head coach, calling Brahm one of the best play callers, and holds his scheme abilities in high regards.
“They’re as talented as a group as we’ve seen all year, skill-wise and especially at the quarterback spot,” Busch said. “Gifted, gifted, gifted. We’ve got our hands full, that’s for sure.”
The Boilermakers’ offense is susceptible to sputtering. After scoring 10 points on their first three drives against Minnesota, they went scoreless over the following seven drives (four punts, two interceptions and a fumble). They closed out with 10 points on their final two drives (not counting the kneel drive) for that win. Against Maryland they scored 17 points in their first four drives before going scoreless on their next seven drives (four punts, two fumbles and an interception). Again, they closed with two touchdowns before taking a final knee.
Purdue’s veteran status carries over to the defensive side but the Boilermakers will miss at least one important piece.
Fifth-year safety Chris Jefferson is confirmed out of Saturday’s tilt. He’s fifth on the team with 17 tackles and leads the defense with five PBUs and two interceptions so far.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple noted the return of Jalen Graham is a big boost to Purdue’s defense. The senior started at linebacker for the first time since the season opener last week and led Purdue with nine tackles. He also had a tackle for loss and pass breakup.
“They got guys up front that can rush the passer and play physical,” Whipple said. “The back end guys…they come up and make big plays when they have to.
“It’s a huge challenge for us.”
Purdue showed a vulnerability for big plays and busted coverages against Maryland. The Boilermakers gave up four plays of 23 yards or more, including a 68-yard touchdown strike. But against Minnesota the secondary played lights out, limiting the Gophers to 257 passing yards. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan threw three interceptions with no touchdowns in that game.
Mitchell Fineran is 5-of-7 for the Purdue field goal unit with both of his misses longer than 40 yards out. A 43-yard field goal is the longest he’s kicked all season.
Jack Ansell punts for Purdue and ranks ninth in the Big Ten with 44.6 yards per punt. Of his 24 opportunities, four sailed into the end zone for touchbacks, six were fair caught. Five of his punts went inside the 20 and six surpassed 50 yards.
Deion Burks is third in the Big Ten with 24.4 yards per kick return and Charlie Jones has returned 11 punts this season for an average of 6.1 yards.