West Lafayette, Indiana
Record: 4-2 (2-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Jeff Brohm, 6th season
Point Differential (2021): +10.5
This is the first of a pair of games for the Huskers against their fellow Big Ten West leaders, but with Nebraska as a two-score road underdog, Purdue appears a much more realistic Big Ten Championship participant.
The two teams are linked by their 2-1 conference records but little else. Purdue has a solid defense whereas the Husker unit has been inept for much of the season. The Boilermakers are the third-most pass-heavy team in the nation while the Huskers are much more balanced and lean toward the run. Most importantly, Purdue is a borderline top-25 team. Its two losses have come to top-20 teams by a combined seven points, and it’s beaten two upper-half conference foes in subsequent weeks. Meanwhile, Nebraska rebounded from a 1-3 start by winning close fourth quarter games against perennial bottom-dwellers Indiana and Rutgers.
The Boilermakers have leaned slightly more pass-heavy this year but may have a bit more verve in the ground game than in years past. However, redshirt freshman walk-on Devin Mockobee will be tasked with handling the bulk of the carries on Saturday with more experienced options in Dylan Downing and King Doerue sidelined.
That means Purdue will likely lean on the passing game even more than usual with sixth-year senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell and a bevy of solid receivers at his disposal. The loss of last year’s top three receivers has hardly held O’Connell back thanks to the addition of Iowa transfers Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy and returnee TJ Sheffield. Senior Payne Durham is one of the best tight ends in a conference full of good ones. The line has largely been average, but that’s an advantage over what the Huskers have.
The Boilermaker defense, surprisingly strong during last year’s 9-4 campaign and with several starters back from that group, rates well but isn’t impenetrable. The run defense is especially solid, allowing an average of under 100 yards per game, and hasn’t allowed a 100-yard performance from any individual. They'll try to drag the Huskers into a back-and-forth passing battle, which will give Purdue’s opportunistic secondary a chance to strike. A shootout, while not the expectation, is a possibility and would be an interesting development given the Boilermakers and Huskers each rate in the top five nationally in red zone touchdown percentage.
With both teams rating toward the top of the Big Ten in penalty yards per game, this could be a matchup that comes down to which team beats itself the least by limiting flags, winning the turnover battle and playing clean on special teams. That’s the kind of game that, until the past two weeks, had recently gone against Nebraska. But it’ll only set up that way if the Huskers exceed what the models expect and continue their proclivity for engaging in close games.
Players to Watch
Safety Cam Allen — He’s tied for the Big Ten lead with three interceptions, two of which he grabbed in a win at Minnesota. He’s also second in the conference in interception return yards, behind only teammate Chris Jefferson, who will miss Saturday’s game. Husker fans may be painfully reintroduced to the senior who grabbed one of Adrian Martinez’s four picks against the Boilermakers last year.
Linebacker/Safety Jalen Graham — He snagged both of his career interceptions in Lincoln last season. After an injury in this year’s opener caused him to miss a month, he returned last week with nine tackles and a pass breakup in a two-point win. Expect to see the playmaking senior all over the field.
Defensive ends Kydran Jenkins and Khordae Sydnor — Two of the biggest difference-makers on Purdue’s frontline, these ends have stepped up alongside defensive tackle Branson Deen and enjoyed big games in recent weeks. Jenkins had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the win over Minnesota while Sydnor posted two sacks last week against Maryland. Like most above-average pass rushers, they’ll have excellent odds of notching another sack against Nebraska.
Numbers to Know
4.2 — While their 56-0 victory over Indiana State has inflated their point differential, Purdue’s five games against Power Five opponents have all been decided by 2-10 points, with an average of 4.2 points separation. That’s another figure that may bode well for a Husker team that has grown used to playing in close games but enters this contest as a two-touchdown underdog.
50 — Charlie Jones sits second nationally in catches with over twice as many grabs as he had all of last season while playing in a limited Hawkeye offense. He’s on pace to become the first Big Ten receiver to record triple-digit receptions in one season since Purdue’s Rondale Moore in 2018. Believe it or not, that season was O’Connell’s second year on the team, although he did not record a snap. It should be noted that Jones’ production has noticeably slowed in the past few games.
311.8 — The success of O’Connell and Jones, who grew up together, is inextricably linked this season. The former leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game, averaging two better than his mark of 309 last year that helped him earn Second Team All-Conference honors.