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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 10: Purdue

The Boilermakers are now in year three of their rebuild, but how much better will they really be in 2015?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Purdue.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 9, Defense - 7
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7 B1G)
Coach: Darrell Hazell, 3rd year (4-20 at Purdue)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 79
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 97
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 53
2015 S&P+ Projection: 74

2014 Capsule

The Boilermakers did not have a particularly successful 2014 campaign. In head coach Darrell Hazell's 2nd year on the job, Purdue started the season 3-3 and even got Hazell his first Big Ten win at Illinois in October. That would prove to be the high point of the season, as the win in Champiagn was followed by six straight losses, four by double digits. This included a 38-14 thrashing at the hands of Northwestern. Although it's hard to believe, Purdue's 3-9 record in 2014 was still a step in the right direction for the program. The Boilermakers went 1-11 in 2013 and were barely a competitive football team, losing multiple games by 30+ points (most notably 56-0 against Ohio State). In 2014, they had their moments, including beating Illinois in Champaign and almost upsetting Minnesota in Minneapolis. This Purdue team is still improving, and might be ready to make a leap, although it's unclear how big that leap will be.

Offensive Overview

Purdue's offense is all about efficiency, they use the run and short passes to set up a deep shot down the field.  The only problem is that it's hard to be efficient when your quarterbacks only complete 50% of their passes. As is always the case, the offense runs through the quarterback, and Purdue will once again have an open competition for the starter spot. Last year Danny Etling won the preseason competition over Austin Appleby, but was replaced by Appleby in week six against Illinois. Appleby had a good game against Illinois (15-20, 202 yards, 1 TD) but was average for the rest of year, only completing 52% of his passes and going 1-6 as the starter.

While it's easy to put all the blame on the quarterbacks, their supporting cast isn't exactly stellar either. The Boilermakers have one real deep threat, senior Danny Anthrop, and when he got injured against Nebraska last year, the offense fell apart. To put in perspective how underwhelming Purdue's wideouts were last year, after Anthrop the next two highest reception totals were 19 from Cameron Posey and 12 from DeAngelo Yancey. Digging a little deeper, you'll find that Yancey's stats were downright absurd. He was targeted 51 times and caught 12 passes for 147 yards. That's a 23% catch rate and 2.9 yards per target. Now most of those incompletions are on the quarterback not on Yancey, but that might very well be the most inefficient stat line by a wide receiver in the entire country.

The tailback situation isn't much better, although it is much more of an unknown. Purdue employs a pass-heavy offense, but the run game is vital for both the play action and taking some pressure off the quarterbacks. Both of last year's leading rushers, Akeem Hunt (172 carries, 952 YDS, 6 TDs) and Raheem Mostert (93 carries, 529 YDS, 3 TDs) are no longer on the team, and the rest of the backs have a total of 27 career carries. The source of those 27 carries, sophomore Keyante Green, averaged 9.1 yards per carry in B1G play last year, but fellow sophomore D.J. Knox is currently ahead on him on the depth chart. Knox boasts some big-play potential as does Green, and this could be a solid one-two punch during the season. Whoever starts will have the vital role of attempting to set up Purdue's big plays as well as catching lots of the check downs out of the backfield.

Purdue's line is the team's strongest offensive unit and it's only getting better. The line brings back all five starters, as well as 6-foot-8, 420-pound guard Corey Clements. Yes, you read that right. 420 pounds. After an atrocious season in 2013, the offensive line was 47th in the nation in Adjusted Line Yards and 3rd in power success rate. (They were 104th and 125th in those categories in 2013) There are a lot of unknowns all around them, but the line should be able to give the quarterbacks enough time to at least attempt the big plays.

Defensive Overview

The defense was a mixed bag for the Boilermakers last year. Inside the redzone, Purdue was one of the better units in the nation, ranked 30th in redzone S&P+, and only gave up 3.9 points per possession inside the 40. However, strong defense inside the 20 didn't translate to good defense overall. The unit as a whole was the typical bend-don't-break defense. They got tough on teams once they were near the goal line, but it was not a real struggle to get there.

The problems with the defense start up front with the defensive line. Purdue was terrible against the run last year, allowing 194.1 rushing yards per game, and will desperately need younger players to step up to be any better this year. The loss of veteran ends Ryan Russell and Jalani Phillips hurts, but it opens up places for younger players like converted linebacker Gelen Robinson and Evan Panfil. The line also returns defensive tackle Jake Replogle, who led the team with 11.0 tackles for loss last season.  If the younger players step up then the line can improve and be much better than the sieve it was last year.

The linebackers will once again be solid; all three starters return, and good play there can help take a little pressure off the front four. Similar to the defensive line, the linebackers will benefit from another year of experience; both middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and will linebacker Danny Ezechukwu were freshman last year, and SAM linebacker Jimmy Herman was only a sophomore. The linebackers will have to make sure they do a better job covering up the mistakes made by the front four, a job that fell mostly to the defensive backs in 2014.

The secondary is the best part of this defense, and it's not really that close. In fact the team's leading tackler last year was free safety Landon Feitchter with 88.0, and the team's second leading tackler was cornerback Frankie Williams with 62.5. (MLB Bentley was third with 59.5) The only problem is that both Feichter and fellow safety Taylor Richards have moved on, as has Antoine Lewis, one of their better corners. For a team that survives by not giving up big plays, turnover in the secondary could spell doom for the entire unit as a whole. A solid pass rush could help smooth the transition, but due to the current state of the line, that's a big question mark.

Three Players to Watch

Danny Anthrop, WR - The only real deep threat on the roster, Anthrop is vital to Purdue's offense.  He's primed for a big year as the main option for whoever plays quarterback, but is recovering from a knee injury against Nebraska that ended his 2014 season.

Frankie Williams, CB - A physical cornerback, Williams will be the cornerstone of a secondary that heads into the season in transition. Purdue's second leading tackler is also a beast in coverage, intercepting three passes last year as well as breaking up seven others. Not content with only contributing on one side of the ball, Williams is also one of the team's best punt returners.

Austin Appleby, QB - At 6'5, 229, Appleby is a big dual-threat quarterback who had his moments last year. While not the best passer, Appleby can certainly beat the defense with his legs (6.0 YPC, 292 YDS, 5 TDs) and will most likely be the starter come week one. Whether or not redshirt freshman David Blough is starting by the time Purdue rolls into Evanston will ultimately depend on the quality of play from Appleby early in the season.

Behind Enemy Lines

SB Nation Purdue blog Hammer and Rails manager Travis Miller gives best and worst case scenarios for Purdue this season:

Best-case scenario:

Year three of Darrell Hazell starts to pay dividends and the Boilers surprise folks by getting through a sneaky tough non-conference schedule undefeated. They begin by winning comfortably at Marshall and people really start to notice when Purdue upsets Virginia Tech in week 3. A rough opening stretch to conference play quickly cools everyone as Purdue goes 1-3, beating Minnesota but losing to Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The back end is the opposite, however as Purdue goes 3-1 against Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, and Indiana. A surprising 8-4 record sets up for a big 2016 season with most everyone including Austin Appleby/David Blough who finally took the reins at quarterback.

Worst-case scenario:

A confident Marshall team blows out Purdue in the opener. The Boilers only go 1-3 in the non-conference, beating Indiana State, but losing to Virginia Tech and Bowling Green (making it a third straight year with a home MAC loss). The losing streak continues with a 0-4 start to Big Ten play. Purdue salvages something with a second straight win over Illinois, but Northwestern and Iowa put Purdue at 2-9 heading into the Bucket game with Indiana. The Hoosiers clinch a bowl birth and beat Purdue three times in a row for the first time in 70 years. An ineffective Austin Appleby is replaced again midseason at quarterback as Hazell goes to the backup for the third straight year. David Blough doesn't fare much better and overall the offense continues to look lost.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Purdue preview on Purdue's trouble with special teams:

Paul Griggs is automatic inside of 40 yards, and in Frankie Williams, Purdue has one of the more dynamic punt returners in a conference loaded with dynamic punt returners.

But special teams is going to only be so much of a strength if kickoffs and punts are a drain on field position. Purdue allowed 11.4 yards per punt return, 12th in the conference, and while the Boilermakers allowed a healthier 19.8 yards per kick return (37th nationally), Griggs' kickoffs were short and inefficient. Purdue ranked in the triple digits in kickoff and punt efficiency, which meant that the bend-don't-break defense was already bending before a drive even started.

Final Thoughts

The theme of 2015 for the Boilermakers is improvement. 2014 was an improvement on 2013, and there's plenty of optimism heading into the new season. I think Purdue plays better this year, but I don't think the ceiling is too high. The quality of play will improve, but the schedule is just too tough. They've got two tough non-conference games, against Marshall and Virginia Tech, and then they play Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. Ouch. The second half of B1G play is much easier: Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana, but at that point a bowl might very well be out of reach. They'll probably finish somewhere around 5 wins, maybe 6 and a bowl if they pull an upset somewhere along the line.

As for the November 14th game against Northwestern, it's still way too early to predict (we have no idea who's playing quarterback for either team), but I don't think it'll be a blowout. Purdue will be coming off of a win against Illinois the week before, but the Wildcats have the home field advantage. My way-too-early prediction is that Northwestern comes out on top in a one score game. It's just too difficult to overlook how bad Purdue's run defense was last year, and the Wildcats should be able to ride Justin Jackson to victory.

The Game

Date: Nov. 14
Time: TBA
Home/Away: Home
Projected Betting Line: Northwestern -13.5