Times are changing in West Lafayette, and boy did they need to change. I was initially a little surprised by Darrell Hazell’s firing with Purdue at 3-3, but after taking a closer look at the Boilermakers’ stats it all makes sense now.
Purdue isn’t particularly good at anything at the moment, which might make this the toughest Stats Six-Pack to write yet.
But we’ll forge ahead anyway.
THE LINE: Nebraska opened as about a 24-point favorite, 24.5 in some places, and the line seems to be holding pretty steady there. If you believe the computers, however, the Huskers are trending closer to a 26-point favorite. S&P+ projects a 44-17 Nebraska win, meanwhile FEI is showing 52-6 with a 99-percent win projection for the Huskers.
THE RANKINGS: Speaking of FEI, the Huskers continue to climb the rankings there, up three spots from last week to No. 13. Nebraska had even bigger jump in The Power Rank’s rankings, rising five spots to No. 13. The rest of the rankings we’re tracking this year have Nebraska closer to 2015 Iowa territory. Purdue, of course, is not looking great. The Sagarin ratings are particularly cruel as they include FCS teams in the rankings. The Boilermakers are currently ranked behind 11 FCS teams, including Youngstown State, in the Sagarin ratings.
On to the stats I’ll be keeping an eye on this Saturday:
1. Nothing for Free
We’ll start with the obvious one – turnovers. Everyone remembers last year’s Purdue game, right? The Huskers were minus-five in turnovers that day and only lost by 10. That’s an unusual margin of victory for a team that turns it over that much in 60 minutes.
The surest way – maybe the only way – Purdue springs another upset over Nebraska is through some similar insanity. The numbers still suggest that the Huskers are probably due for a turnover turnaround at some point. Right now, according to Football Study Hall, Nebraska should be -2.54 in turnover margin on average based on the Huskers’ numbers of fumbles and passes defended. That would rank 102nd nationally. In actuality, Nebraska is plus four, which ranks 28th nationally. That’s a significant gap.
Meanwhile, Purdue has been a little unlucky in the turnover department, ranking 106th in expected turnover margin and 120th in actual turnover margin. If the Huskers were to come out on Saturday and go minus-three or four in turnovers, it would feel a little bit like the numbers evening out.
Based on that, I’ll set a fairly conservative number to hit here, at which I still think Nebraska could win comfortably, but best to just avoid testing this theory altogether.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s turnover margin (Number to hit: Over -1.5)
2. Hit ‘em Low
Given Nebraska’s injuries, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskers ran the ball close to 55 times on Saturday. In fact, I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Purdue hasn’t been efficient in run defense (46.7 percent success rate, 104th nationally) and it has been even worse at limiting explosive rushing plays. The Boilermakers have given up 14 rushes of 20-plus yards (114th) and 10 of 30-plus (123rd). There have been plays to be had against Purdue on the ground.
That should be good news for a Nebraska run game that has to this point been efficient but not explosive. Saturday might be a chance to get a little of the latter. Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, et al. should be licking their chops. In conference play the Boilermakers are giving up 7.45 yards per carry. Only Arkansas, which has played Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, has been worse.
If Nebraska’s yards per carry isn’t pretty healthy early on in this one, and the passing attempts start to creep up, it might be a sign that things aren’t going to plan.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s YPC (Number to hit: 6.8)
3. The One Guy to Keep an Eye On
We’ll see if this changes now that Hazell is no longer calling the shots, but Purdue has thrown the ball a lot so far this season. Just based on the stats, I think you could make an argument that the Boilermakers should be leaning on the run a little more, and maybe they will with a new coach in charge. Running backs Markell Jones and Brian Lankford-Johnson both offer some upside. I think they’re pretty good backs overall, and Lankford-Johnson has a little bit of big-play ability.
But the real player to keep an eye on this weekend is senior wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey. He leads Purdue in receiving yards and yards per catch and he’s been particularly effective against Nebraska.
As a freshman in 2013, Yancey had five catches for 146 yards (29.2 YPC) and the Boilermakers’ lone touchdown, a desperation bomb late in the game that kept Nebraska from recording its first shutout since 2009. Yancey missed most of the 2014 game, but was back in 2015 with another five catches for 111 yards (22.2 YPC) and two touchdowns.
If for nothing other than mental stability, it would be good if Nebraska could hold him down on Saturday.
Stat to watch: Yancey receptions (Number to hit: 3 or fewer)
3 More to Monitor
Nebraska’s Success Rate: After a season-low output against Indiana, this game is for Nebraska to get back on track. The Huskers still have one of the best success rates in the country (47.5 percent). Purdue’s defense is one of the worst in the country at 46.7 percent. Nebraska shouldn’t be off schedule too often on Saturday, so let’s just split the difference and say the Huskers should be right about 47.1 percent.
Sacks: Sacks can be a pretty misleading stat that doesn’t accurately measure what’s effective – putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him to make worse throws. That said, this one will be more fun to watch than instructive. The one thing Purdue perhaps does best, given its high number of pass attempts, is limit sacks. Nebraska has posted eight in three conference games thus far (fifth in the Big Ten) and a few more on Saturday would be an additional sign that this game is playing out the way most expect.
The Fourth Quarter: We all know what’s Nebraska’s done in the final 15 minutes this season. Most Husker fans will enter Saturday hoping similar dominance isn’t really necessary, but say this for Purdue: It’s best quarter offensively, based on S&P+, has been the fourth quarter as well. That might be the result of playing catch up in three non-competitive losses, but it’s worth keeping in mind anyway should this game come down to crunch time.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.