By CLIFF BRUNT
There’s bad news for Purdue’s porous run defense: Nebraska’s ground game is as good as the Boilermakers will see this season.
The Cornhuskers rank ninth nationally and second in the Big Ten in rushing offense with 291.6 yards per game. They average 5.8 yards per carry heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Boilermakers in West Lafayette.
Only Wisconsin, which averages 300.6 yards per game on the ground, ranks higher in the conference. Nebraska’s ground game powers an offensive unit that averages 42.4 points and 501.2 yards per contest.
Though Nebraska is as effective as Wisconsin rushing the football, the Huskers have a different style than the Badgers.
“Where I think Nebraska has done a nice job, it’s more deceptive-type runs,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said during his weekly news conference on Tuesday. “You know, some of the quarterback zone read stuff, the power off of those things and the speed sweep. They are a little more deceptive than Wisconsin, where Wisconsin is a downhill zone, power team.”
Ameer Abdullah leads Nebraska with 690 yards rushing, and he has five touchdowns. He is coming off a 225-yard effort in the Huskers’ 39-19 victory over Illinois that earned him Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“He’s strong,” Hazell said. “He’s not very big. He’s 5-11, 190, but you can see his power and strength, and he gets on a guy’s edge and it’s hard to put that guy down. So we are going to have to do a great job of getting hands to him and make sure we do a great job of wrapping him up because he’s a strong, strong runner.”
The Boilermakers have struggled with wrapping up this season. They were gouged for 388 yards rushing on 48 attempts in a 41-10 loss at Wisconsin on Sept. 21. Melvin Gordon ran for 147 yards on 16 carries, James White ran for 145 yards on 16 attempts and Corey Clement added 83 yards on 13 carries. Overall, Purdue ranks 87th nationally out of 123 teams in rushing defense, surrendering 183.2 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry.
Purdue has made some changes to try and improve its defense. Among them, the Boilermakers are moving Bruce Gaston, one of their best defensive players, from tackle to end to position him to be more of a playmaker.
The Huskers feature several capable runners other than Abdullah. Imani Cross is a power runner who has gained 274 yards and leads the team with six rushing touchdowns. Terrell Newby has added 229 yards on 40 carries.
The quarterbacks can run, too.
Nebraska has started Tommy Armstrong at quarterback the past two games while longtime starter Taylor Martinez has recovered from a turf toe injury. Armstrong has engineered wins over South Dakota State and Illinois. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has described Martinez’s status as day-to-day.
Armstrong has completed 20 of 28 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns without an interception and rushed for 79 yards on 18 carries. He has a passer rating of 197.99. Martinez has passed for 528 yards and nine touchdowns in just three games. He has thrown just one interception this season, and has rushed 32 times for 101 yards.
Their ability to run adds to the emphasis on preparation for Purdue’s defense.
“We are going to have to do a good job with our gap discipline and our eye discipline and all those things,” Hazell said. “If you’re out of alignment with assignment football, it can hurt you.”
Hazell expects Armstrong to get the start.
“We are preparing for the backup right now,” Hazell said. “That’s all we have to study right now. Last week they put in the third team guy (Ron Kellogg) for a series or two, but I think that was just to get his feet wet a little bit. We are going to prepare for the backup quarterback and see who shows up on Saturday.
The Huskers seem to be returning to their running roots, though they have been more effective than usual in the passing game this season. Nebraska ran 50 times and threw just 20 passes against Illinois. Nebraska’s ability to hurt opponents down the field with the pass gives the Boilermakers much more than Abdullah to think about.
“They are doing a nice job running the ball with that back (Abdullah), and he ran for a million yards last week, and the quarterback (Armstrong) is throwing it well enough to keep you honest, so it’s going to be a good challenge,” Hazell said.