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Know your 2018 Northwestern football opponent, Week 1: Purdue

The darlings of the Big Ten West last season, Purdue will have to endure attrition on defense to reach a bowl game.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The final leg of our 2018 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. Obviously, a lot can change before game week, but this series serves as a way to take stock of where each program is at coming into 2018.

Up first is Purdue, who Northwestern will visit on a Thursday night to open the season. Jeff Brohm led Purdue to a remarkable turnaround in 2017, as the Boilermakers won four of their final five to earn bowl eligibility and a bowl victory over Arizona. This is not a Purdue team to be taken lightly, especially on the road to open the season.

The Basics

Returning production: 59 percent (77 percent, 41 percent)

2017 record: 7-6 (4-5 B1G)

Coach: Jeff Brohm (7-6 2nd season)

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.

2017 S&P+ Overall: 41st

2017 S&P+ Offense: 60th

2017 S&P+ Defense: 35th

2018 S&P+ Projection: 54th

2017 Capsule

After Purdue made back-to-back bowl games in 2011 and 2012 under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers burned through three coaches and earned only nine wins in four seasons plus one game. Enter Jeff Brohm, who led Western Kentucky to 30 wins and three bowl appearances in three years.

The results were evident right away. Purdue gave No. 16 Louisville all it could handle in the season opener, leading the Cardinals in the fourth quarter before Heisman winner Lamar Jackson put the Boilermakers away.

A week after dispatching Ohio, Purdue went to Columbia and dismantled Missouri 35-3. The Boilermakers lost four of their first five conference games, playing Michigan and Wisconsin tough before losing a confounding game to Rutgers on the road and a heartbreaker to Nebraska.

Purdue closed the season on a roll, however. Led by a stingy defense, the Boilermakers beat Illinois at home before a ten-point loss to Northwestern. Then, Purdue went into Kinnick Stadium and knocked off Iowa 24-15 behind three touchdowns passes from Elijah Sindelar. A win over Indiana the next week made Purdue bowl eligible for the first time in five seasons.

In the Foster Farms Bowl, Purdue earned a thrilling 38-35 victory over Khalil Tate and Arizona, winning four of five to close the season with a 7-6 record in Jeff Brohm’s first season at the helm.

Purdue’s offense was competent in 2017, and the Boilermakers return their top two quarterbacks and nearly all of their rushing production. The story of Purdue’s season, however, was their resurgent defense, which improved dramatically in 2017, ranking 35th in the country in S&P+ after finishing 99th the year before. Jeff Brohm has Purdue headed in the right direction, but before penciling Purdue in as a riser in the Big Ten, it’s important to note the Boilermakers lose a lot of talent from that solid 2017 defense.

Offensive Overview

After a horrible offensive season in 2016, Purdue’s improvement to average in 2017 was an important development.

An impressive offensive line keyed the Boilermaker’s relative success in 2017. Purdue’s offensive line was borderline elite, finishing 13th in the country in adjusted line yards after coming in at 106th the year before. The Boilermakers weren’t particularly explosive, but they executed in the red zone and avoided negative plays. Center Kirk Barron, an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honoree, leads a group that returns four starters, plus Western Kentucky grad transfer Dennis Edwards.

Purdue’s rushing attack was the primary benefactor of the offensive line’s strong play. Each of Purdue’s four primary running backs rushed for 250 yards or more, and no back was under 4.85 yards per carry. Tario Fuller was the starter at the beginning of the year before going down with a knee injury and missing the final ten games. Markell Jones and D.J. Knox got the majority of the carries, combining for 1127 yards and three touchdowns, plus 28 receptions and two more scores. Jones earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 217 yards in a win over Indiana that clinched Purdue’s bowl eligibility.

The Boilermakers have a bit of a quarterback controversy on their hands. David Blough, a senior, has made 25 starts over the past three seasons. Blough went 102-for-157 for 1103 yards and a 9:4 TD:INT ratio before breaking his ankle against Illinois. At the time, Blough was splitting time with Sindelar, who took over and led the Boilermakers to four wins, including the Foster Farms Bowl. Sindelar threw for 18 touchdowns against only seven interceptions, even though it was later revealed he was playing on a torn ACL for the final stretch of the season.

Given his hot streak at the end of 2017 and his status as a pocket passer at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Sindelar is expected to get the nod under center. Purdue loses two of their top three wide receivers, including deep threat Anthony Mahoungou. The top returnees are Jackson Anthrop, a smaller receiver who hauled in 47 catches and five touchdowns last season, and Terry Wright, who was Purdue’s fourth receiver in 2017. Isaac Zico and Jared Sparks are two bigger wideouts who weren’t super consistent in 2017. True freshman Rondale Moore, the top recruit in Kentucky, could also get some playing time right away.

Tight ends Brycen Hopkins and Cole Herdman are both huge, and the duo combined for 45 catches, 680 yards, and six touchdowns last year.

The Boilermaker offense returns most of its major weapons and has a sense of momentum after making huge improvements in 2017. There will be no easing into the season for Northwestern’s defense.

Defensive Overview

If Purdue’s offensive turnaround was impressive, its defensive makeover was even more special. The Boilermakers jumped from 99th to 35th in defensive S&P+ in 2017, led by a punishing run defense that finished in the top ten nationally. After allowing 35 rushing touchdowns in 2016, Purdue surrendered only ten in 2016.

However, most of Purdue’s 2017 standouts are gone. Only two starters from the front seven (DT Lorenzo Neal and LB Markus Bailey) are back. The Boilermakers lose 12 of its 14 sacks up front, and three of its top four linebackers. Bailey is a beast— he racked up 78 tackles and 15 havoc plays. Derrick Barnes and Cornel Jones got some snaps last year, but both linebackers are unproven.

On the defensive line, Purdue will turn to a host of inexperienced players, but guys like Ray Ellis (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and Giovanni Reviere (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) have impressive size. The Boilermakers are switching back to a 4-3 this year, so defensive coordinator Nick Holt will have an extra spot to fill up front.

Both of Purdue’s starting safeties return, but the Boilermakers will need to break in new cornerbacks. Kamal Hardy and Tim Cason are a couple of experienced corners who have seen extended backup duty. Dedrick Mackey was one of Purdue’s top 2017 recruits and he’ll likely get a shot at the starting job.

Purdue’s passing defense wasn’t a strength last season, and it’s clear the Boilermakers didn’t get better in the defensive backfield. Last November, strong performances from Clayton Thorson and Bennett Skowronek carried Northwestern to a win at home. If Purdue is breaking in a couple cornerbacks on August 30, Northwestern might be able to exploit the Boilermakers with its passing attack.

Still, you have to think such a drastic improvement on defense has a lot to do with coaching, so Northwestern should expect a solid Purdue outfit next month, despite the attrition.

Three Players to Know

QB Elijah Sindelar

Sindelar isn’t the dual-threat Blough is, but the dude can chuck it. The Kentucky native was exemplary down the stretch, passing for 1,160 yards and 11 touchdowns against only two picks as Purdue won three of its last four. Sindelar will miss his deep threat in Anthony Mahoungou, but the junior has the arm strength and the size to compete as a Big Ten quarterback.

LB Markus Bailey

Bailey is the star of this defense, a do-it-all linebacker who is responsible for creating havoc in the backfield while also leading the team in solo tackles last year. Purdue is going to look for major production at middle linebacker from the former three-star recruit.

TE Brycen Hopkins

It feels weird to include a player who might not even start when Northwestern heads to West Lafayette, but Hopkins is exactly the type of player who could be a matchup nightmare for the Wildcats. Hopkins is a behemoth at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds and smaller safeties like J.R. Pace or Jared McGee could have trouble with Hopkins up the seam. He’s tough to handle in the red zone and finished fourth on the team with 14 yards per catch in 2017. His partner at tight end, Cole Herdman, is another load to handle in open space.