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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Purdue

Is this a trap game? Maybe.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-3, 4-2 B1G) are on a four-game win streak. However, they should not overlook a Purdue (4-5, 2-4 B1G) team that has been inconsistent but passable team this season. It’s going to be chilly and defensive game, which suits both teams. This is what both teams will need to do to get over the line.

Why Northwestern will beat Purdue

Execution on third/fourth down

Although some have criticized Northwestern’s aggressiveness on fourth down, their decisions have paid off. The Wildcats are 25th in the nation on fourth down conversion rate, and they certainly have had a large sample size to work with. As for third down conversions, Purdue’s defense ranks 37th in third down conversion rate at 34.4 percent. You’d figure Northwestern and particularly Justin Jackson will need to do better than that today. The third down battle should lean in Northwestern’s favor, as Purdue’s rush defense ranks 43rd and Jackson sits at 38th for individual rushing yards, which will likely allow him to make big plays and pick up another 100+ yard game. With Northwestern’s past three games winding up in overtime, it’s clear every play and every point counts, and they’ll have to make the high-leverage plays to keep their streak alive.

The turnover battle

Purdue’s offense averages 1.6 turnovers per game and Northwestern’s averages 1.9, but NU’s defense seems to have an edge on this front. Bill C seems to think the Boilermakers have been lucky in the turnover department, which further cements Northwestern’s advantage. Northwestern has forced 9 fumbles — including three by redshirt freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher — to go with 8 interceptions and 35 pass deflections as a team. With starting quarterback David Blough out for the year with an ankle injury, the Wildcats should be able to force punts and force the Boilermakers to turn the ball over.

Confidence

Northwestern officially made the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time since the 2015 season on Nov. 7. A top-25 ranking should absolutely inspire confidence. If that’s not enough, the four game win streak — including three overtime wins — should provide the rest. NU has faced much more difficult opponents this season, and will likely be overjoyed to be back in their home stadium after a tough road environment. Not to mention the Wildcats have only dropped one game in Evanston, and that was against a then top-five Penn State team over a month ago.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Purdue

Complacency

On the same note, it can be hard to not get overly confident in situations like this. As I said before, Northwestern has come up with some huge wins lately and is ranked for the first time since 2015. They don’t have the same necessity to prove their talent as they did when they were 2-3 early in the season. That said, NU certainly has more to fight for, including a potential 9-3 record and a solid bowl game.

It’s easy to overlook this 4-5 Purdue team. That would be a mistake. The Boilermakers haven’t lost a game by more than 8 points and recently lost to Nebraska by one point and Rutgers by two. They held Wisconsin to 17 points in Madison, competed with Louisville and flattened a low-end SEC team on the road. Purdue’s record may not look like those of some of the more impressive teams NU has beat, but they should not be taken lightly. We’ve seen Northwestern have letdown games at home against beatable opposition before (hello, Illinois State). If Northwestern drops this one, that will probably be the main narrative.

Purdue’s passing attack beats Northwestern’s secondary

Blough’s injury certainly hurts Purdue’s offense. However, the Boilermakers have been using two quarterbacks for a large part of their season, and should be fine with sophomore Elijah Sindelar. Sindelar threw a touchdown on his first pass attempt after Blough went out against Illinois. He has thrown for 939 yards and seven touchdowns, and can really be a dynamic passer at times. He is by no means inexperienced and has freshman wide receiver Jackson Anthrop to help him out. Anthrop has 5 touchdowns, 35 receptions, and 353 receiving yards this season. Although Blough’s injury will certainly give NU an edge, Purdue’s passing game should be taken seriously, particularly against a Northwestern team which relies heavily on its rushing defense and is still prone to giving up long pass plays. Northwestern’s secondary survived through the incredible play of Kyle Queiro last week. If he has an off day, the Wildcats could be in trouble.

Purdue’s defense is steady and doesn’t break often.

Purdue’s scoring defense has been consistently solid. The Boilermakers are 20th in the country with only 18.9 points per game allowed. Since allowing 35 to Louisville, no team has scored more than 28 points against Purdue, and they’ve held four teams to under 20. If Purdue’s defense is able to bend and not break, that’ll place a lot of pressure on the Wildcats’ defense and could cause problems for NU. Northwestern has been really, really good in the red zone this season (that’s how you win three straight overtime games), so it will be a battle between two season-long trends.