Northwestern (1-7, 0-6 B1G) desperately needs a win, or at the very least a competitive game, to give fans some semblance of hope and break out of their current tailspin. If the Wildcats want to pick up that all-important victory on Saturday, they will have to beat out Purdue (3-6, 2-4) in these crucial areas:
Aidan O’Connell vs the NU Secondary
Northwestern got torched by both Indiana quarterbacks in last weekend’s embarrassing loss, with the Hoosiers seemingly able to throw the ball wherever and whenever they wanted. For a Wildcat secondary that has undoubtedly suffered from the injury of 5th year senior Trae Williams, seeing Greg Newsome II limp off the field was extremely painful. The true sophomore had been NU’s best corner this season, and apart from a few pass interference calls, had been having a nationally recognizable season before being officially ruled out for the rest of 2019 on Monday.
With that said, Purdue is also injury-plagued. Former backup quarterback Jack Plummer was helped off the field in the 4th quarter of the Boilermaker’s 31-27 win over Nebraska, and will not return in time for Saturday. With Elijah Sindelar still sidelined with a collarbone injury, it seems likely that Lincolnshire native Aidan O’Connell will get the start against the Wildcats.
The walk-on sophomore led Purdue to a heroic 4th quarter comeback against Nebraska, completing 6 of 7 passes for 62 yards. It’s hard to think that O’Connell will be able to tear up the NU secondary the way the Hoosiers did, especially given that his biggest playmaker, Rondale Moore, is still questionable, but with the Wildcat defense certain to suffer from a continued absence of offense, anything is possible.
Hunter Johnson OR Aidan Smith vs Purdue Defense
Will Northwestern ever score another touchdown? Who knows? What is certain is that NU has a bad offense, one that doesn’t seem to be on track to get much better anytime soon. This week, after another drubbing, even Pat Fitzgerald was far from confident or upbeat when it came to the group’s potential ability to improve down the stretch.
Meanwhile, after playing for the first time since September 28th against Wisconsin, Johnson went down with a right leg injury in the 3rd quarter. In his return, HJ didn’t look great. He overthrew a couple of balls and made some questionable decisions. However, some of this can be chalked up to him likely not taking too many first team reps in practice, and not playing at game speed in over a month.
With that said, a rusty, relatively uncomfortable Johnson may still be better than Aidan Smith, especially given that both have the ability to run successfully, which has been the offense’s best aspect over the past few weeks. If Hunter is healthy, he should almost certainly get the start against Purdue, even if it will deprive us of an Aidan vs. Aidan matchup, if for no other reason then to get some in-game reps and build his confidence near the end of a mostly-lost season.
King Doerue vs the Wildcat front seven
Northwestern gave up 144 rushing yards on 3 touchdowns on the ground against Indiana. For a team with a linebacking corps as talented as NU’s, that can’t happen, even with some major injuries to the defensive line (Samdup Miller is out for the year and Trevor Kent was in and out) making a negative impact.
While a significant portion of their struggles can be attributed to fatigue from remaining on the field for what seems like the whole game, Northwestern has to a better job of stopping the run. That front seven has a phenomenal opportunity to reestablish its dominance this weekend, facing a Purdue rushing attack, helmed by true freshman King Doerue, that has only been ok so far this season.
Doerue comes off of a performance against Nebraska in which he racked up 71 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, one of which was for 25 yards. The Texas native is averaging 3.4 yards per carry on 104 attempts this year, and has recorded 4 touchdowns through 9 games.
The Northwestern defense needs to make a statement up front to end the season on a high note, and they can start that campaign against the Boilermakers.