Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. 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. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Northwestern heads to West Lafayette, Indiana, on November 14 to take on Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers. Last year’s matchup against the black and gold was emblematic of the Wildcat’s season—disappointing. Down by nine at the half, the Boilermakers pulled it out on a last-second field goal. Since then, Purdue has regained a key member of its already impressive receiving corps in Rondale Moore. Its defense, while a liability at times last year, does not look to have gotten worse.
Returning Production: 74 percent (Offense 26 percent, Defense 73 percent)
2019 Record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Jeff Brohm
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 64th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 45th
2019 S&P+ Defense: 82nd
After an exciting 2018 that featured a bowl berth, the Boilermakers entered the 2019-2020 season faced with a difficult schedule, drawing its three most difficult contests, Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin, on the road. Between a tricky slate and a slew of injuries, Purdue’s season fell well short of its preseason hype.
The ominous signs began week one in Reno when the Boilers lost to Nevada on a game-ending field goal. Hopes slowly began to climb in week two with a dominant 42-24 win versus Vanderbilt, but Purdue began to play Jekyll and Hyde, as it has been accustomed to doing over the past few years. They allowed 358 yards on the ground in a blowout loss to TCU that marked the first of three straight losses allowing 30 or more points.
After a 1-4 start, Purdue showed flashes of brilliance coupled with extreme inconsistency, especially on offense. The Boilers threw for a robust 300 yards per game, even whilst going through three signal callers, but could not establish a ground attack. They nearly upset a quality Indiana team in the Old Oaken Bucket Game game, but now-Northwestern QB Peyton Ramsey had a career day and led IU to a 44-41 overtime victory. It was a classic defensive performance for Jeff Brohm’s defense, which allowed an average of 31 points and 436 yards per game.
Brohm’s offense, though littered with injuries last year, is seeking to make up lost ground with the return of star receiver Rondale Moore. Moore, who initially opted out, has decided to return following the Big Ten’s reinstatement of the 2020-2021 season. The All-American junior, who sustained a hamstring injury last year on the same play Elijah Sindelar suffered a season-ending injury, will rejoin the young receiver who filled his void, David Bell. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year led the pass-heavy Boilermakers offense in receiving, pulling in 1,035 yards alone.
Purdue’s success in the passing game depends in part on who wins the battle at quarterback. Sophomore Jack Plummer and junior Aidan O’Connell both threw for over 1,000 yards last season in the place of an injured Elijah Sindelar. Plummer, on the tail-end of rehab following a brutal ankle injury versus Nebraska in week nine, may have a slight edge over O’Connell as his ability to be mobile in and out of the pocket fits well with Brohm’s offensive philosophy. Don’t rule out Austin Burton, though, the UCLA transfer and brother of Northwestern women’s basketball star Veronica Burton.
While the Boilermakers’ passing game is an undoubted strength, the team’s inconsistencies will remain until they improve their running game. Purdue was statistically the worst rushing team in the Big Ten, averaging only 2.9 yards per carry, totaling under 1,000 yards on the season. The average total rushing yardage amongst their opponents was around 2,300 yards. With little change having occurred to a mediocre offensive line this offseason, few are speculating that returning leading rusher King Doerue will surpass his measly 2019 total of 451 yards. Nonetheless, should Brohm’s offense remain healthy, its passing game has serious potential to cause problems in opponents’ secondaries.
Purdue’s defense was not spared any injuries last season either. The lack of now NFL linebacker Markus Bailey and now senior tackle Lorenzo Neal did little to help Brohm’s defense reach any sort of success. Having finished the season 12th in the conference in scoring and 13th in total yardage, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco needs to find a way to improve almost every facet of his unit.
The return of Neal, who made 17 solo tackles before injuring his knee in week five, will be a big help for the run defense. Now working with breakout star George Karlaftis, Neal could help put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Karlaftis proved himself as a freshman last season, racking up 7.5 sacks and 54 total tackles, 30 of which were solo. The All-American has some serious potential to become a force for the black and gold.
A combination of transfers into Diaco’s secondary could improve Purdue’s pass defense this season. Needless to say, improvement is quite necessary given that the Boilermakers allowed close to 250 passing yards per game last year. Former UConn safety Tyler Coyle, a graduate transfer, and Iowa’s D.J. Johnson, who just had his NCAA waiver approved and is waiting on the Big Ten to sign off on it, are seeking to make significant contributions to Purdue’s defensive side this year.
Three Players to Know
Rondale Moore, WR
Moore’s opting back into the 2020 season is a huge win for the Boilermaker’s passing game. The first true freshman consensus Big Ten All-American has returned to practice and is expected to have a productive comeback season. Before sustaining a hamstring injury that ended his sophomore season, Moore electrified the country with 143 career receptions, 1,645 career yards and 14 total touchdowns. It is safe to say that alongside Bell in Brohm’s pass-heavy offense, Moore is set to pick up right where he left off.
David Bell, WR
Any doubts about whether Purdue’s passing game would find success after Moore’s injury last year were quelled with breakout star David Bell’s efficient freshman season. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year was a pleasant surprise for Boilermaker fans, hauling in 86 balls and pulling in seven touchdowns. Bell has a bright future ahead and was set to be the centerpiece of Brohm’s offense before Moore’s return.
George Karlaftis, DE
Another member of Brohm’s 2019 recruiting class, Karlaftis had an impressive freshman season as well. The defensive end was named a freshman All-American for good reason, as he became an integral part of the Boilermakers’ rushing defense. His best performance came in an eight-tackle, one-sack effort against Penn State. They’ll need him to be a force once again.