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October 12, 2013

Match-up watch: Purdue

NU Run Offense vs. Purdue Run Defense
Ameer Abdullah reminded us all of something as he repeatedly tore through the Illinois defense last week - he's really good. Lost in the excitement of newcomer Terrell Newby and the question marks at quarterback, Abdullah got lost in the shuffle a bit. Whatever the case, his 225-yard day against Illinois puts him on pace to have Nebraska's best rushing season since Ahman Green in 1997. He's averaging 7.3 yards per carry, including a 9.4 average in the second half. Despite all the preseason hype surrounding Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner, Abdullah and Melvin Gordon have been the conference's offensive best players through six weeks.

And Abdullah's numbers don't figure to take much of a hit against Purdue. The Boilermakers are allowing opponents to rush for 183.2 yards per game (third-worst in the conference) and 4.8 yards per carry. Wisconsin ran for 388 yards on Purdue just two weeks ago.

Imani Cross got 15 carries last week, but a pair of fumbles may knock his opportunities back a bit. He still appears to be the solid backup in front of Newby, but the running back group as whole must secure the ball better - they've already fumbled a combined seven times.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. Purdue Pass Defense
Bo Pelini confirmed on Thursday that while Martinez will travel with the team, Tommy Armstrong will start his third straight game. Ron Kellogg will also play. The Huskers' quarterback rotation is confusing - Armstrong has shown he can handle the offense, and though Kellogg has improved dramatically during his time at Nebraska, he simply doesn't have Armstrong's talent. It will be very interesting to see how this is handled going forward.

There aren't many questions about the guys they're throwing to. Quincy Enunwa is making a bid for the all-conference team, and Kenny Bell isn't far behind. Jamal Turner has been slowed by a hamstring injury but will play Saturday. Jake Long will miss the trip, putting an extra onus on youngsters Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton.

Purdue isn't very good against the pass. They allow opponents to complete 64.7 percent of their passes, the second-worst mark in the Big Ten. They do have nine sacks in five games, but Nebraska's offensive line has given up just two.

Edge: NEBRASKA

Purdue Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
To say Purdue has struggled to run the ball is an understatement. The Boilermakers are last in the conference in yards per game (87.0) and yards per rush (3.1). Leading running back Akeem Hunt has just 193 yards on the season. This unit is an absolute mess.

This is just the type of team a young Nebraska defense needs to face right now. The Huskers played much better against Illinois last week, but backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young still combined for a 5.1 average. That number needs to be brought down if the Huskers hope to have success against the Big Ten's better teams.

And this might just be the type of game to give them that confidence. The linebacker rotation is still unsettled, but David Santos will start at MIKE, Jared Afalava will likely take the BUCK spot and Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson will battle for the WILL, depending on Anderson's health. Maybe a few of these guys start to emerge and give Nebraska some continuity at the position.

Edge: Nebraska

Purdue Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
How big of a mess is the Purdue passing game? Over the team's bye week, Darrell Hazell not only demoted starting quarterback Rob Henry, but moved him to safety. That leaves the position in the hands of true freshman Danny Etling, who hasn't exactly shown great promise in his limited time (48.7 completion percentage, two touchdowns, 2 interceptions).

That should have the Blackshirts licking their chops. I would expect John Papuchis to dial up some blitzes early and put some heat on Etling to see how he responds. If the Huskers go with a more straightforward approach, it will be on Randy Gregory and Avery Moss to get to the quarterback, because no other Husker has been able to provide consistent pressure.

The Boilermakers' leading receiver is Hunt, a running back. There isn't a single receiver that scares opposing offenses on the roster, making this a day for NU's secondary to reassert itself. Watch what happens at the safety spot alongside Corey Cooper - as many as four players are fighting for that job.

Edge: Nebraska

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Neither of these special teams units is particularly awe-inspiring - both seem to excel on kickoff returns and punts, but little else. Nebraska's kicking situation is a mess, as both Pat Smith and Mauro Bondi missed extra points last week. Pelini said Smith will handle the field goal duties this time around, but can the Western Illinois transfer handle them? Punt returns have also been trouble, though Jordan Westerkamp is at least sure-handed.

Kenny Bell continues to be a terror on kickoff returns (30.1 average) and though Sam Foltz's opportunities have decreased lately, he's still performed at a high level.

Hunt is a dangerous returner and has already taken a kick 99 yards to the house, and punter Cody Webster has already placed 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. Outside of that pair, Purdue's special teams aren't any more impressive than Nebraska's.

Edge: PUSH

Nebraska Will Win If:

It handles its business. Purdue is the worst team in the Big Ten, so this is a good road test for a young defense. It's a good opportunity to get Armstrong more experience and get the Blackshirts some confidence before the thick of the league slate arrives.

Purdue Will Win If:

Etling somehow turns into Drew Brees overnight. Based on the Boilermakers' lack of defense, pathetic running game and rookie quarterback, it doesn't have much hope here. If Purdue forces NU into a bevy of turnovers, a la Iowa State in 2009, maybe they have a fighting chance.

X-Factor:

Leadership. Andrew Rodriguez thought the Huskers looked flat before the Illinois game, so he got up in front of the team and got them fired up. This is another game that NU might not take seriously enough, so the Huskers will need a veteran leader to arise and motivate them to put Purdue away early.

Prediction:
Nebraska 41, Purdue 17



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