Who would have thought that Northwestern playing Purdue on November 14 could eventually decide the winner of the Big Ten West? Probably no one. This weekend’s game alone is a matchup to watch. Jeff Brohm’s talented receiving corps will meet a confident Wildcat secondary, Purdue’s run defense may bend (and break?) and as usual, it could come down to special teams.
Northwestern’s secondary vs. Rondale Moore and David Bell
There’s a reason Fitz called David Bell the best wideout in college football. The true sophomore carried Purdue’s air attack through its first two games with four total touchdowns and 243 yards. And, after being sidelined for two weeks with a hamstring injury, Rondale Moore may return to the field for the first time in nearly a year. Moore led the Boilermaker’s offense in receiving yards when the two teams faced off in 2018, when he became the first true-freshman consensus All-American in Big Ten history.
Purdue’s receiving corps will be up against a relatively efficient Northwestern secondary though. Safeties Brandon Joseph and JR Pace have provided solid coverage in the back end. Joseph has racked up 12 unassisted tackles in the open field coupled with three interceptions, while Pace has nine solo takedowns and an interception of his own. With playmakers Greg Newsome II and Cam Ruiz rounding out the secondary’s depth chart, Moore and Bell may get a taste of some disciplined coverage for the first time this year.
Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson vs. Purdue linebackers
Contrary to Purdue’s pass heavy offense, the ‘Cats prefer to keep things on the ground thanks to seasoned veteran Isaiah Bowser and shifty playmaker Drake Anderson. With Bowser out against Nebraska, Anderson picked up the slack with 89 yards and a touchdown. What the stats don’t show is his speed and agility. Overall, the ‘Cats have rushed for over 600 yards in three games, and it doesn’t seem like Mike Bajakian will abandon the run.
On the other hand, Purdue’s defense has allowed 372 yards rushing in just two games and almost five yards per carry. Northwestern’s defense has allowed roughly half of that total. Where Purdue has excelled is in forcing turnovers and holding on third down. While NU’s depth at running back has been impressive and will likely have holes to hit Saturday night, they shouldn’t underestimate a Boilermaker defense that shares some aspects as its own defense.
Purdue’s punter-by-committee vs Riley Lees
The Boiler punters are typically fine — sophomore Brooks Cormier averaged 40.3 yards per punt last year while junior Zac Collins (brother of former NU punter Jake Collins) averaged 39 yards — but there’s uncertainty in this part of the third phase after Purdue’s win over Illinois. Cormier got the nod but averaged under 33 yards per punt in Champaign, including a 19-yarder and a 28-yarder that was returned 16 yards. Jeff Brohm has declared the job open, and there’s a chance we see both punters at some point Saturday night.
Riley Lees is an above-average return man and kick-started NU’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive with a 36-yard return to put the Wildcats in plus territory. He’s the unquestioned starter after NU’s special teams mistakes against Iowa, and it’s the little things his returns do that contribute to the field position battle, which the Wildcat defense takes advantage of.
Honorable Mention: Peter Skoronski vs George Karlaftis (if healthy)