With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
The next team in our series is Purdue. Northwestern will face the Boilermakers Nov. 11 in Evanston, on the heels of a crucial three-week stretch of games against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. Purdue has new head coach and potent passing attack, which could provide a scare, but the Wildcats should not lose this game.
Purdue enters 2017 with a new head coach: Jeff Brohm, who coached at Western Kentucky from 2014-2016.
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Returning experience: 66 percent
2016 record: 3-9 (1-8 B1G)
Coach: Jeff Brohm (1st season)
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.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 105th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 94th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 99th
2017 S&P+ Projection: 87th
Purdue had another disappointing campaign in 2016, which led to the school firing head coach Darrell Hazell.
The beginning of the season went fine, with the Boilermakers thrashing FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky and handling Nevada 24-14, losing to 4-8 Cincinnati 38-20 in between the two wins.
But when Big Ten play came around, Purdue was simply outmatched by every team not named Illinois (ha). A 50-7 beatdown loss at the hands of Maryland signaled what was yet to come, though the Boilers actually rebounded to defeat Illinois in a close game the following week. That game — which took place Oct. 8, was the last time Purdue would win a game all year.
Hazell's team could put up points — they scored 30 or more points four times last season — but a lot of those points came when the team was trailing by a lot, which was often. The Purdue defense was atrocious during conference play, giving up 49, 27, 62, 44, 45 and 49 points in a six-week stretch last season.
Plus, Purdue's schedule wasn't as bad as it could've been. Its cross-division matchups were Maryland, Indiana and Penn State. They didn't get to play lowly Michigan State and Rutgers, but they avoided Ohio State and Michigan. The toughest games on the schedule — Wisconsin and Penn State — were also at home.
The Purdue offense had some bright spots last season, and a lot of key contributors return in 2017.
David Blough is probably the top reason for optimism, as he showed flashes of talent last season.
Blough passed for nearly 280 per game, which is a big number, but part of that is a function of how often he had to throw ball because of how awful the defense was. Although he displayed a decent degree of arm talent, he also struggled to take care of the football, throwing 21 interceptions (compared with 25 touchdowns) and losing two fumbles.
Increased efficiency will be a solid barometer for Blough's success next season, but he'll have to do that without his four most-productive wide receivers from last season, all of whom were seniors. DeAngelo Yancey will be the biggest loss of the group; he was far and away the team's leading receiver with 951 yards receiving on 49 catches (19.4 yards/catch).
Isaac Zico, Terry Wright and Jackson Anthrop are three players who could step into more prominent roles in the offense, but they're all very inexperienced. Corey Holmes, a bigger receivers who's a former Notre Dame transfer, also figures to get some targets.
The starting tight end from last season Cole Herdman, is back, and should be a security blanket of sorts for Blough. He was the team's fourth-leading receiver last season with 344 yards.
At running back, starter Markelle Jones will be back in his junior season, with an eye on helping Purdue achieve more offensive balance than last season. He rushed for 616 yards on 154 carries last season, and he's a pretty receiver out of the backfield. Brian Lankford-Johnson could also add something as a shiftier, change-of-pace back. The team could see some contributions from D.J. Knox, who missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury.
Underclassmen accounted from 24 of 60 starts on the offensive line, so there's some experience coming back there. Again, balance would create some unpredictability for opposing defenses, which would aid the offensive line tremendously.
The Purdue offense was neither explosive (117th in IsoPPP last season) nor efficient (107th in Success Rate).
The strength of the Purdue defense will lie in the linebacking corps, where senior Ja'Whaun Bentley will lead the charge. Sophomore Markus Bailey and senior Danny Ezechukwu are also back. Bailey and Bentley combined for 13 tackles for loss last season, and Bentley missed some time.
On the D-line, Brohm's team will lose its top two defensive tackles, which will hurt. Defensive end Gelen Robinson, the team's third-leading tackler a season ago, will be a force, though he could get bumped inside to make up for lost production on the interior. Robinson had eight tackles for loss and five sacks in 2016. Austin Larkin, Eddy Wilson and Lorenzo Neal — yes, the son of former NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal — will figure in on the edge.
As is often the case with a program that struggles to recruit well, and Purdue has definitely struggled in that area, there are concerns about depth, especially in the front seven, where you need to rotate players.
In the secondary, there are a lot of guys who saw snaps last season given the unit's struggles, but none had a ton of success. So, there are a host of players who could step up, but it's hard to see the secondary being very good this season.
Navon Mosley and C.J. Parker will probably man the safety spots, and Josh Hayes, Da'Wan Hunte and Tim Cason are candidates to start at corner.
The team ranked 121st in the country last season in havoc rate, which means the defense didn't make a whole lot of big plays. For a defense that gave up a ton of big plays (Purdue ranked 105th in defensive IsoPPP in 2016), that havoc number is pretty awful.
Players to Know
The Boilermakes' signal caller is asked to do a ton, and he sometimes answers the bell, and sometimes does not. He can push the ball down the field pretty well, but he gets picked off a lot. His numbers are a little deceiving, but there's clearly some talent there.
Herdman, the team's tight end, is the leading returning receiver. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he's a load to deal with in the middle of the field, and should be a red zone presence for Purdue next season.
A former four-star, Robinson is the top returning defensive lineman on the team. With last season's top two D-linemen gone, Robinson will need to make things happen for a team that will need a pass rush to cover up its deficiencies in the secondary. He can play either end or tackle.
The Maryland product has dealt with injuries throughout his college career, but he has shown the ability to be disruptive in the box. Bentley appeared on several Freshmen All-American teams in 2014, and can get into the backfield better than most players on the Purdue defense.