Of all of Nebraska's new rivals in the Big Ten conference, one opponent stands out. Not Michigan, not Ohio State, not Penn State. Not even Wisconsin. No, it's Purdue. Not only has Nebraska never - ever - beaten Purdue in football, the Huskers haven't even scored on the Boilermakers. First reaction would be to think that's because they've never played, but that's not true either. In 1958, Purdue shut out Nebraska 28-0 in West Lafayette. A lot of things have changed since then (FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS!!!1!!!), but not that series record. The debacles of Nebraska's Bills (Jennings and Callahan) are history, while Purdue has bounced around between mediocrity and actually not-all-that-bad in football over the years.
Purdue finished the 2012 season 6-7, with head coach Danny Hope being ushered out the door before the "Heart of Dallas Bowl". The Boilermakers had no interest in the game as Oklahoma State scored early and often, en route to a 58-14 victory. The 2012 Boilermakers narrowly missed two opportunities to shock and rock the college football world, though. In week two, Notre Dame needed a 22 yard field goal with :07 left in the fourth quarter to top Purdue. A month later, Purdue led Ohio State 22-14 in the final minute, only to have the Buckeyes tie the game with :03 left, then win at home in overtime. But blowout losses to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State were too much for Purdue to stomach.
Replacing Hope is Darrell Hazell, who went 16-10 in two seasons leading Kent State. The Golden Flashes nearly busted the BCS in 2012, going 11-3 after losing the MAC Championship game to Northern Illinois in double overtime. Kent State found a way to win a bunch of close games in 2012, and that might be what Purdue is looking for to turn the program forward.
Senior Rob Henry would seem to be the likely starter at quarterback at first glance. He started several games in 2010 as a redshirt freshman, but then he tore his ACL in August 2011. Now he's healthy, but appears to be an odd-fit with offensive coordinator John Shoop's plans for a pro-style passing attack. (Think Joe Dailey and Bill Callahan's West Coast Offense.) Henry's strength is his feet, not his arm. In his first start in 2011, he gutted Northwestern for 132 yards on the ground running the zone read. As a passer, he completed 53% of his passes in 2010 and 55% in 2012. I suspect that when the Huskers come calling in mid-October, true freshman Danny Etling might be the quarterback. He's a better long-term fit with their plans, and may not need much time to get up to speed at this level. I suspect that you could see Purdue move Henry around the field like Kain Colter, with Etling taking most of the snaps at quarterback.
Junior running back Akeem Hunt rushed for just 335 yards and two touchdowns last season, but his 8.0 yards per carry average certainly gets your attention. At 5'9" 184 pounds, he's a smaller back, but he's spent the offseason working on adding some power to his impressive strength. Up to now, his primary contribution has been on kick returns, where he was a third team all-Big Ten selection last year. If Henry isn't playing quarterback, he could see some snaps here because after Hunt, there are only freshmen. 6'3" 195 pound Robert Gregory is a converted quarterback who redshirted last year. Joining the squad this year are 5'9" 205 pound Keyante Green, 5'10" 205 pound David Yancey, and 5'9" 175 pound Dayln Dawkins. All will get their shot, though Hunt should start out as the workhorse.
At receiver, senior O.J. Ross would have been the Boilermakers' leading returner. He was suspended this spring, and his status for this fall was unclear until he declared for the NFL's Supplemental Draft last week. That will make senior Gary Bush the man to watch in the passing game in 2013. The 6'0" 185 pound senior caught 41 passes last year for 360 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6'5" and 220 pounds, junior Dolapo Macarthy will have to up his game to match his size in the absence of Ross. From there, unproven players will need to step up this season, like speedy junior Raheem Mostert or 6'4" junior Charles Torwudzo. True freshmen Dan Monteroso and Deangelo Yancey should get every opportunity to contribute right away; this group of receivers may be lacking in experience, but not size.
On the offensive line, senior tackles Justin Kitchens and Kevin Pamphile should be the strength up front. Sophomore Robert Kugler will take over at center, while 6'7" 320 pound senior Devin Smith will be a presence at left guard. With a new coaching staff, there's a good chance that there will be some swapping of positions and players to find the right combination.
New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson gets eight returning starters from a defense that ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season. All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short will be sorely missed, but Bruce Gaston, his mate inside, is back and ready for a big year. The 6'2" 303 pound senior should be the strength up front. At defensive end, keep an eye on 6'5" 275 pound junior defensive end Ryan Russell is a two year starter who could be the playmaker up front.
Linebacker is where the major questions are on defense, where only middle linebacker Joe Gilliam returns as a starter. The 6'1" junior bulked himself up to 227 pounds to improve on his 57 tackles last season. Former quarterback Sean Robinson made a smooth transition to linebacker and is the biggest of the bunch at 6'3" and 240 pounds. Fellow 5'11" 230 pound senior Will Lucas lost his starting job to Gilliam, but still ranked second on the team last season with 66 tackles.
The secondary should be the most solid part of the Boilermaker defense, with senior cornerback Ricardo Allen a candidate for conference honors once again. At 5'9" and 186 pounds, he's a solid tackler (199 career tackles) and already holds the school record with four career interception returns for a touchdown. His next would tie the division 1-A record. 6'0" 189 pound junior strong safety Landon Feichter led the team last season with 80 tackles and four interceptions. 5'9" 186 pound sophomore Frankie Williams is expected to claim a starting spot at the other cornerback spot. As a freshman, he totaled 45 tackles and nine pass breakups as a backup.
Can Hazell perform another rapid turnaround of a football program? That's what Purdue fans are hoping for, but there appear to be a few too many holes in the program when looking in the summer of 2013. Some of those questions revolve around which was the real Purdue: the one that nearly upset Notre Dame and Ohio State on the road, or the one that lost by double digits to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and closer to the latter.
In any event, it seems that Purdue's 55 year shutout streak of the Huskers probably will finally be broken this October.