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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Purdue

These clashes will play a big role in determining the outcome of Thursday’s game.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, we’re in the first Northwestern football gameweek of 2018. Northwestern comes into this matchup fresh off a ten-win season, and an offseason full of positive news. The first week of the season this year is a unique one, as NU faces off against conference foe in Purdue. Here are three key matchups to watch in this contest.

Purdue’s tight ends vs. the Northwestern secondary

Purdue has two extremely capable tight ends that have NFL potential and size. Cole Herdman is listed as the starter, and, at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he has the chance to become a major weapon for Purdue. Beyond his experience (he’s played 12 games in each of the past 3 seasons), he’s a big red zone threat, amassing eight touchdowns and 814 yards.

Brycen Hopkins is a player that will be super intriguing to watch. He has nearly identical size to Herdman, and averaged 14 yards per catch last year. Paired with Herdman, the two could cause substantial damage. Darius Pittman is a bit of a wild card as well. The third tight end on the depth chart, he also has nice size, but played the majority of his snaps on special teams last year.

Depending on how Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz choose to defend Herdman, he could pose a real problem for Northwestern safeties that won’t have starting experience at the position. Although I think Jared Mcgee, J.R. Pace, and Bryce Jackson have the potential to create a solid starting duo, they’re all unproven and small compared to the Purdue tight ends. They’ll likely have to devote extra attention to Hopkins and Herdman, so it will be a compelling matchup to follow all game.

Markus Bailey vs. Rashawn Slater and Blake Hance

In addition to his run-stuffing ability, Bailey is a nightmare for offensive tackles. With seven sacks last year, he established himself as an elite dual-threat linebacker. I’m interested to see how he’ll be used attacking the outside of NU’s offensive line. Both tackles are reliable players for NU, but Bailey is a stud, and can attack the edge relentlessly.

In the run game, Bailey’s ability to crash the edge could become another thing to focus on. If NU has to invest multiple linemen in blocking Bailey in the run game, other lanes could open up for the Purdue defensive line. His highlights against Arizona in last year’s Foster Farms Bowl illustrate how effective he can be. In so many plays, he finds a way to insert himself in the action and make an impact. It will be crucial to see the mental and physical battle between NU’s offensive tackles and Bailey.

Jeremy Larkin vs. the Purdue run defense

The heir to Justin Jackson’s throne will be up for a stiff test on Thursday. Last season Purdue ranked 6th in S&P+ in run defense, and gave up 133 yards on the ground, a pretty stout number. As we all know, Northwestern relies heavily on the running game, putting the ball on the ground over 50% of the time.

Further, this will likely be Clayton Thorson’s first game back from ACL surgery, putting even more of an emphasis on the run game. Larkin had an impressive summer, and his role will be crucial, as replacing Jackson’s enormous production will be difficult.

If the Northwestern offense is able to establish a run game early, it’ll be crucial to limiting Markus Bailey’s ability to gamble on defense and force him, as well as the rest of the Purdue defense, to be much more conservative. The run game allowing Thorson a bit more time on the ball when passing would be a big step toward victory.