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Nebraska vs. Indiana, 10/15

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong (4) leads the Huskers out onto the field against Indiana on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind.

Road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State may be just a hop over the fence away, but Mike Riley doesn't see his team peeking past Purdue.

"I didn't see any big difference in the approach," the Husker coach said after Thursday's practice. "I think we're pretty level-headed. ... I would hope, and I think, that this group understands that all of our games have been hard. I mean, we have had to play well into the second half, well into the fourth quarter some of them, to win the games.

"So I cannot believe that we would assume that it would be any easier than that."

The Huskers are playing a 3-3 Purdue team playing its first game under interim coach Gerad Parker. It's also true Nebraska hasn't held a lead of greater than 11 points heading to the fourth quarter of any of its six wins.

A few key items Riley wants to see from his team Saturday?

* An improved run game, for starters. NU had just 85 rushing yards in the first three quarters against Indiana. "I thought that was a pretty inconsistent performance by our offense." Purdue is giving up an average of 264 rushing yards a game.

* Finishing in the red zone. The Huskers have been in the red zone 26 times this year, scoring on 21 of those visits, with 17 of those resulting in touchdowns. NU's touchdown percentage in the red zone ranks 52nd.

* Riley also said "we can't give them any big hits" in the passing game. Purdue is the No. 1 passing offense in the league. "We've got to be good tacklers. We can't give them any runs after the catch ... and no deep balls.

"And then kind of solidify what we do up front against the run, and not let them suddenly have a balanced game that looks good that way."

Riley points out that Purdue hurt the Huskers plenty with bootleg passes in the Boilermakers' 55-45 win last year. "We'll see more of that, for sure, until we prove we can do better against it than we did last year."

Punt problems: Nebraska has had two punts blocked and ranks last in the country in net punting -- 29.04 yards per punt.

"The whole punt team has to get better," Riley said. "We were in that situation where we didn't look good in protection, didn't look good in coverage. So what good is there?"

The coach feels true freshman Caleb Lightbourn has kept his poise through it all. "I think that we have to do a great job around him," Riley said. "A lot of returns are the responsibilities of the whole group, but the punter has to do a nice job. It's about hang time and direction and he has to do his part."

Riley said Lightbourn has "been doing OK" when given the opportunity.

On the 39-yard punt return NU allowed against Indiana, the coach felt the punt unit "broke all the rules of coverage ... so that group has a lot of improving to do."

Gates a maybe, Westy out: Left tackle Nick Gates practiced Thursday for the first time this week. How he feels Friday will decide whether he plays Saturday. Sophomore Cole Conrad is the backup plan there.

Senior center Dylan Utter sat out Thursday with a dislocated pinkie finger suffered against Indiana. It's really sore, but Riley doesn't expect it to keep him from playing Saturday. Michael Decker is the backup there.

Sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo (ankle) practiced Thursday, but did miss some time the day before, casting some haze over his role for Saturday.

Senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp (back) will not play for the second straight week, Riley confirmed, but seems to be aiming for a return against Wisconsin.

"He was running nicely today, but I think it's one of those things with that extensive of an injury that now that he feels pretty good, let him work to get ready for next Tuesday's practice," Riley said.

Senior tight Cethan Carter (elbow) also will not play Saturday.

Quotable: "If he couldn't physically (handle it), then we wouldn't have him in there," Riley said of quarterback Tommy Armstrong's health. "He is certainly at a point where, like a lot of football players right now, you're not at 100 percent physically. Something is always probably bothering you a little bit. But I think Tommy goes and plays, competes."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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