Football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday night's contest between Big Ten foes Northwestern and Purdue.
Justin Jackson vs. Purdue's linebackers
It's no secret that Northwestern is better when Justin Jackson gets going. Purdue boasts one of the best run defenses in the nation (seventh in S&P+), so it could be tough going for the Ball Carrier to find holes for a lot of the game. But the Boilermakers rank 100th in defensive rushing IsoPPP, meaning they give up some explosive plays. If Jackson can make the likes of Ja'Whaun Bentley, Markus Bailey and T.J. McCollum miss in the open field, he could break a big run or two that flips field position or defines a drive.
Northwestern is 4-0 when JJ rushes for at least 90 yards this season. If he gets to that threshold Saturday, the Wildcats should tally another W.
Northwestern's slot corners vs. Jackson Anthrop
Anthrop is just a freshman, but he's Purdue's leading receiver out of the slot, and he has the highest target percentage and catch rate on the team. On what looks like it could be a cold, rainy night, a big play could be what swings the game. It will likely be Alonzo Mayo, Trae Williams or even Marcus McShepard covering Anthrop in many cases because Montre Hartage — Northwestern's best corner — typically plays on the outside. It'll be important to hold Anthrop in check, especially with David Blough out at quarterback for Purdue. Anthrop's longest catch this season is 35 yards, so he hasn't broke a really big one yet, but he'll likely be an important target for a young quarterback in Elijah Sindelar, who will probably look for Anthrop on quick-hitting routes in the middle of the field.
Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson vs. Purdue's running backs
Because of the cold weather, and because Purdue's attack has been shaky, you can expect to see a big dose of the running game when Purdue has the ball. Jeff Brohm's team has had success running the ball this season — Purdue is 22nd in rushing S&P+ — but it's been a group of backs doing the damage, not just one. D.J. Knox leads the group, but he has just 65 carries this season. Four backs have at least 40 carries for the Boilermakers, so each back is fresh when on the field. Plus, each back brings a little bit of a different element to the game, making it tougher to scheme defensively. Lancaster and Thompson will have to defend a lot of runs Saturday, so their ability to get into backfield, eat double teams and clear space for the NU linebackers (including the unbelievable Paddy Fisher) to attack the running backs will go a long way to shutting down Purdue's offense.