On Nebraska and Purdue
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: It’s Now-or-Never for Nebraska’s Run Game Against Purdue

October 30, 2019

Two of the 16 college football coaches we know make more than $5 million per year will square off this Saturday in West Lafayette, Indiana. It's the ninth such $5 Million Man matchup this season. Many of those games––Michigan-Penn State, Texas-Oklahoma, Texas A&M-Clemson, Auburn-Florida––were some of the biggest of the first two months of the 2019 season.

When Nebraska (4-4, 2-3) visits Purdue (2-6, 1-4) on Saturday, it will be more about the contrast between the money spent and the results thus far delivered. I'm not sure that's fair. Nobody really questioned the amounts Nebraska and Purdue were willing to spend on their in-demand, up-and-coming coaches when they received those salaries. Cost of doing business, y'know? 

But 2019 hasn't gone as well as either Scott Frost ($5m, 14th-highest) or Jeff Brohm ($6.6m, 8th) had hoped. The Huskers had higher expectations entering the season, but have seemed to be stuck in a Year 1 rerun rather than the blockbuster Year 2 you expect with a blockbuster budget.

Things weren't quite as rosy for the Boilermakers entering 2019. Most of the defense returned, but the offense had a lot of holes outside of the Elijah Sindelar-Rondale Moore battery. When both were hurt on the same play in a 38-31 loss to Minnesota, the onus on offense really fell on a young offensive line. It hasn't gone well. Purdue ranks 120th or worse in five of the nine o-line stats at Football Outsiders.

Here's how the two offenses compare otherwise:

Success Rate 42.4% (58) 42.0% 38.3% (102)
>Rush Success Rate 42.3% (63) 42.0% 34.0% (121)
>Pass Success Rate 42.3% (57) 41.6% 40.8% (74)
Explosive Plays Pct. 16.23% (43) 15.3% 13.78% (98)
>Exp. Rush Pct. 14.16% (65) 14.6% 10.38% (121)
>Exp. Pass Pct. 19.30% (26) 16.1% 15.82% (69)

The Huskers' offense got a solid bump in both efficiency and explosiveness after playing well (mostly) against Indiana. The offensive-line numbers still aren't anything to write home about, but, as is sort of the theme here with many of these numbers, they're better than Purdue's.

Neither Sindelar nor Moore has played in the last four games. Jack Plummer has already been announced as the starter at quarterback, while a decision on Moore's availability will be closer to game time. Even without Moore, Purdue has some dangerous receivers. Freshman David Bell draws the headlines, and he should with 44 catches for 653 yards, but on a predicted points added basis tight end Brycen Hopkins (34 catches, 441 yards) has been even more valuable.

Problem is that Purdue's only real path forward on offense is through the air. The Boilermakers' success rate on rushing plays is among the worst in the country and their 22 rushes of 10 yards or more ranks 127th. West Virginia is the only P5 team with fewer. Nebraska's not setting the woods on fire with its ground game either right now, but if you had to identify one team that would be able to find some success running the football, the choice is pretty clear.

Particularly after you look at the defensive numbers.

Success Rate 41.2% (69) 42.0% 41.8% (80)
>Rush Success Rate 41.7% (76) 42.0% 43.6% (96)
>Pass Success Rate 40.5% (63) 41.6% 39.8% (60)
Explosive Plays Pct. 15.49% (80) 15.3% 15.65% (83)
>Exp. Rush Pct. 15.96% (100) 14.6% 13.64% (59)
>Exp. Pass Pct. 14.86% (59) 16.1% 17.78% (107)

Purdue has been OK at limiting explosive rushes, but has struggled to keep teams off schedule via the run. It's been tough overall against the pass, only to give it back with big gains through the air. This, obviously, is not a winning formula and if Nebraska's output last week was more than just a bye-week-bolstered burst there could be trouble for the Boilermakers.

Nebraska's concern defensively should be how the Hoosiers picked apart a pass defense that, to that point, was probably the strongest part of this 2019 team. Purdue is the only Big Ten team averaging 40 pass attempts per game (Indiana is second at 38). It won't be afraid to go there again. While the Boilermakers' offensive line has struggled in most regards and its sack total is high, its sack rate is better than the national average. This was an issue for the Huskers against Indiana. Nebraska's defense, which has been fading since the start of conference play, should be (better be?) able to stop a ho-hum run game on Saturday but will it have a better solution against the pass, including some sort of pass rush?

If the Huskers do, this is probably the most favorable matchup left for Nebraska in 2019. Over the last three games, Nebraska has faced teams that challenged them in very specific ways, teams that had a little salt for specific Husker wounds. Northwestern didn't have an offense, but did have a defense capable of forcing long drives. Minnesota's offense was patient and powerful. Indiana was just operating more efficiently than Nebraska across the board.

Purdue doesn't appear to have any of those big advantages. I'm not quite ready to pencil in a big rushing day for Nebraska, but the potential for that is there, as is the chance that the Huskers' offense may have rounded a corner last week. The Huskers have to find some successful runs and they can't solely be the domain of a quarterback or Wan'Dale Robinson. 

If not now, when? The answer for 2019 might be never then.

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