Neither of the teams set to meet in West Lafayette on Saturday has had a banner season.
Purdue started the campaign 2-0 but has lost three straight games, while Nebraska, a still fiercely proud program that has fallen on hard times, is 1-4 with only a victory over 1-5 Penn State on the positive side of its ledger.
The Cornhuskers' trip to Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday afternoon is a chance for Purdue to get its season back on the right track and return to .500 ahead of the Old Oaken Bucket Game against Indiana to close out the regular season.
“When you get three losses in a row, a lot of teams get down,” Purdue running back Zander Horvath said. “But we can't do that, we have to keep high intensity and just keep moving forward. ... Take all the coaching points, attack whenever we get out on the field, listen to coach (Jeff) Brohm and whatever he has planned for us.”
Brohm's plans this week will have to include a way to slow down quarterback runs. In the Boilermakers' 37-30 loss to Rutgers in their most recent game, Purdue held the ball for less than two minutes in the fourth quarter as Scarlet Knights third-string quarterback Johnny Langan attacked the Boilers' front seven again and again on the ground. Langan eventually ran 21 times for 95 yards, and the Scarlet Knights went 10 for 17 on third down as Purdue was powerless to get off the field.
“We just have to be more stout up front and make the plays that come to us,” defensive lineman Branson Deen said. “We had a few missed tackles (against Rutgers) and we had chances to stop those runs and we just didn't make a play. ... If guys stay in their gap and do their 1/11 we'll be fine.”
The Boilermakers will likely face a similar challenge this week against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey – who are both expected to play – are running threats. The quarterbacks are each at 5.6 yards per carry or better and have combined for nearly 600 rushing yards.
The Nebraska defense is also improving as the season wears on. The Cornhuskers are giving up more than 420 yards of offense per game, but they held star Iowa running back Tyler Goodson to 3.7 yards per carry in their most recent outing, a 26-20 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Horvath had 23 touches for 162 yards for the Boilermakers last week because Rutgers was dropping extra defenders in coverage to stop receivers Rondale Moore and David Bell. If Nebraska instead loads the box to stop Horvath, targets for Moore and Bell should increase significantly.
For the fourth straight season under Brohm, the Boilermakers have reached a defining moment in their season. In 2017 and 2018, they bounced back at the end of the year to reach bowl games. In 2019, injuries largely prevented them from doing so.
“We've got to be a team that can deal with adversity,” Brohm said. “That's part of football. We're going to have it every year. (In 2017), we were 4-6 and we find a way to win at the end. (In 2018), we start 0-3 and found a way to win against an undefeated Boston College team, against Iowa, against Ohio State and get to a bowl game.
“And this year we've got our work cut out for us without question. We've lost three in a row. We have a tough opponent coming in that's going to be very hungry. ... We have a lot of tough football yet to be played.”
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette
Records: Purdue (2-3), Nebraska (1-4)
TV: Big Ten Network