Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This weekend, Northwestern (4-5) will square off with Purdue (3-6) in game that the could push the Wildcats within a game of guaranteed bowl eligibility. The Wildcats come into the game having lost back-to-back games to Top 10 opponents, including last week’s 21-7 physical beatdown at the hands of Wisconsin. Conventional wisdom says that this is a game the Wildcats should win relatively easily, but Purdue hasn’t quit on its season after the firing of former head coach Darrell Hazell, and the Boilermakers’ high-octane passing attack could pose a threat to Northwestern’s beat-up secondary. If the Wildcats are to finish the regular season with a winning record, they need to start by beating Purdue Saturday. Here are the reasons Northwestern will or won’t win Saturday.
Why Northwestern will beat Purdue
1. Northwestern’s offensive line will rebound after facing a dominant Wisconsin front seven
Northwestern’s offensive line struggled at times last week, especially in the running game. But, this was against one of the best defenses in the country. With all due respect to the Boilermakers, their defense isn’t even in the same stratosphere as the Badgers. Out of 128 FBS schools, Purdue’s defense ranks 112th in S&P+. Moreover, the Boilermakers are 118th in rushing S&P+ and 123rd in rushing IsoPPP. After having just 13 carries a week ago, Justin Jackson will get the ball much more, and he’ll run all over Purdue. The Wildcats won’t have as many third-and-longs to convert, and as a result, they’ll have a field day in West Lafayette.
2. The Northwestern pass rush will remerge
If there one thing to know about the Purdue offense, it’s that they like to throw it out around. Like really throw it around. Purdue’s sophomore quarterback David Blough averages over 45 attempts per game and holds the Big Ten lead in passing yardage by nearly 200 yards. Because Purdue will pass on so many plays, Northwestern’s defensive ends won’t need to be as concerned with setting the edge in the running game, which they struggled to do last Saturday. This game screams for Ifeadi Odenigbo. After a few quiet games, Odenigbo will have the license to just pin his ears back and rush Blough. With a resurgent pass rush, the Northwestern defense will force some forced throws and turnovers this week.
3. Northwestern is the better team
Don’t overthink this. Purdue’s only Big Ten win this season came in a close game against Illinois. Penn State and Minnesota just scored a combined 106 points on the Boilermakers in the past two weeks. Northwestern lost its previous two games, but to two teams with College Football Playoff aspirations. Clayton Thorson will benefit from a more balanced offensive attack, and Justin Jackson will get back on track. The team will once again play the complementary football Pat Fitzgerald looks for, and the result will be a resounding victory.
Why Purdue will beat Northwestern
1. David Blough will pick Northwestern’s secondary apart
The area that Northwestern’s defense has struggled in this season is in the secondary, and Blough will have every opportunity to take advantage come Saturday. Trae Williams, Montre Hartage and Marcus McShepard tend to play pretty far off the line of scrimmage, so short and intermediate routes are usually there. Additionally, all three have been prone to missed tackling at times, which can allow shorter completions to turn into big plays. In just the last three weeks, Blough has had passes go for 88, 62, and 89 yards. Even in losses, Purdue puts up numbers and points, so if Northwestern’s offense has an unproductive day, it could spell a lot of trouble for the Wildcats.
2. Clayton Thorson has another off day
A lot has been made of Northwestern’s poor performance in the trenches last week, but Thorson had his fair share of struggles, too. Thorson missed open receivers down the field and often opted to look for shorter dump-offs even when the pass protection was good. His only sustained success this season has been to Austin Carr, so the Boilermakers will probably put a special emphasis on covering Carr every play. If Purdue slows down Carr to any degree, it could be difficult for Thorson to find other options on a consistent basis.
3. The offensive line issues continue
Northwestern’s offensive line woes from early in the season came back last week, and it was not a pretty sight. If the individual mistakes on the line continue, Northwestern could be in for another long day. The Wildcats cannot afford to abandon Jackson again this week because of the offensive line, especially with a relatively explosive passing attack on the other side. If the offense can’t hold the ball and control the clock, Northwestern’s cornerbacks are going to have to hold up for a ton of pass plays, which isn’t ideal. When the offensive line is dysfunctional, the offense is dysfunctional. So even against a team with a lower-tier defense like Purdue, mental breakdowns and missed assignments could cost Northwestern the game.