On Saturday, Ryan Field will host a battle of two beaten-up underachievers, with 1-7 (0-6 in Big Ten play) Northwestern hosting 3-6 (2-4) Purdue. For an in-depth look at the state of Jeff Brohm’s program, Aidan O’Connell, and the general strengths and weaknesses of this year’s Boilermakers, we turned to Travis Miller, founder and site manager of Purdue SB Nation blog Hammer & Rails, to take us behind enemy lines.
INU: With a banged-up offense, who should Northwestern fans be watching on Saturday from a skill position standpoint? Is Aidan O’Connell ready for primetime?
H&R: We have such limited experience with O’Connell, but he did really well in engineering the game-winning drive against Nebraska. He played sparingly against Penn State and Illinois, but he was able to complete the drive when Plummer got hurt for a touchdown, then was 6-for-6 for 62 yards after Purdue’s defense gave up the lead. He has been the No. 3 guy since the spring when sophomore Nick Sipe was out with a back injury (and has since retired from football), and the No. 2 guy for a few weeks now. He had a prolific HS career who threw for 2,700 yards and 26 TDs as a senior at Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, Illinois. He had some smaller school offers, but chose to walk-on with us.
I think the biggest thing they have said about him is that he is not the runner Plummer was. He is not as mobile on his feet, but I think he showed a lot of poise in engineering that drive last week. He certainly has some confidence built for this week.
INU: Is Rondale Moore on his way back? How important would his return (or lack thereof) be for this Saturday in particular?
H&R: I will be honest: I don’t think we see Rondale the rest of the season, and if he does come back, I don’t think it will be until after next week’s second bye week. Jeff Brohm has played coy with his injury for weeks, but the theme has always been the same: “He’s progressing, but not where we want him yet.” This is from the same coach that said defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal might be available for Week 2, but he has not played a snap yet.
Since it is a hamstring issue I know those can be particularly dicey when it comes to returning. He could feel completely fine then plant once and be done again. Since we haven’t seen him yet I won’t believe he is playing until he actually plays. If he can come back and be 100% that would obviously be fantastic. This is a guy that hasn’t played in five games and is still our #2 receiver statistically. He is a guy that can make an exciting play if you just get him the ball, as we all learned from last year’s game against you guys. In a game with a walk-on QB against an offensively challenged team like Northwestern he could singlehandedly flip things.
INU: The defense, though it has dealt with its own injury problems as well, seems to have plenty of issues. What is your assessment of how that unit has played so far this season and where they can potentially be exploited?
H&R: It is getting better. Early on teams were throwing all day against us and we had the worth pass defense in the conference. We weren’t able to get much pressure and teams picked us apart. In the last few weeks things have improved. Against Iowa and Nebraska the defense did a good job of limiting points in a “bend-but-don’t-break” fashion. We can still get burned by some big plays, but it is getting better. That, I like to see.
INU: What are the most significant strengths and weaknesses of this team in its current state? Who are the most important players when it comes to potentially reinforcing those strengths or shoring up those weaknesses?
H&R: Even with Rondale out we have a lot of young talent at receiver. David Bell has been excellent this year as a true freshman and, if Rondale hadn’t put up such astounding numbers last season, I think we would appreciate him even more. Bell has twice been Big Ten Freshman of the Week and has pressured defenses downfield. Milton Wright, another freshman, had a good game last week and he and Bell make a good 1-2 punch. Payne Durham and Brycen Hopkins have also been reliable tight ends all season.
Defensively we’re all pleased with the play of freshman George Karlaftis. He leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss and has an incredible motor for a freshman. He is going to be a star in this league. Teams are struggling to slow him down off the edge and once he gets a little more used to the college game and has another year in the weight room he is going to be a beast.
INU: With the Boilermakers sitting at just 3-6 after a rollercoaster ride of a season to this point, what is the overall fan perspective on how 2019 has gone relative to expectations (taking into account injuries and other difficulties)? Do fans have a negative, positive, or neutral opinion on Jeff Brohm, his staff, and the program’s immediate future?
H&R: I think overall the impression is still positive, mostly because his contract extension last year allowed us to sign a top 25 recruiting class for the first time in decades. The 2019 class is our best class in over 15 years by a wide margin and the 2020 class is just as good on paper. That’s a significant talent upgrade after the Hope/Hazell years where they struggled to stay out of the 70s in recruiting. We were at the bottom of the Big Ten in recruiting for most of the past decade, so even getting to the middle is a huge boost, let alone the top 5.
All that youth comes with a price though. There have been moments of inexperience this year. The loss at Nevada is still bothersome to me because that is when the team was at its peak of health and it still blew a 17-point lead. It troubles me that Brohm has had a loss like this in each year so far (Rutgers 2017, Eastern Michigan 2018) where he tends to lose to the worst team on the schedule. Even with all the inuries, that should have been a win and if we don’t play Illinois in a monsoon I like our chances there.
Brohm basically got an advance on 2020-22 with his improved recruiting. Right now, that span looks really good because we’ll have talent and now a wealth of experience from this year. If he is still struggling then I am sure the judgments will be more harsh.
INU: Despite having arguably the worst offense in the country and a 1-7 record, at the time these questions are being written, Northwestern is favored over Purdue on Saturday. Is that as ridiculous as it sounds? What is your game prediction?
H&R: It really depends on what O’Connell can do. Northwestern can’t put up points on anyone, so even with our defensive struggles seeing the Wildcats get to 20 points would be a black eye on our defense. Can O’Connell get 21 points then? We lack any kind of running game to help him. King Doerue has been good in fits and spurts, but we’re still 129th nationally in rushing. That puts a lot in the hands of O’Connell and we haven’t seen enough to really know how he is going to perform.
This could be a brutally ugly game that ends like 7-3. I do like that we have some playmakers like Bell and Hopkins who can make something happen if O’Connell gets them the ball.