Purdue has not looked like a special, dynamic team that should be contending for a Big Ten division title. But the line between what should happen and what does happen in 2020 is thinner than freshman year Vic Law.
The Boilermakers and ‘Cats teamed up to end Iowa’s hopes by a combined five points. Then Purdue went to Champaign and defeated a bad-again Illinois squad 31-24 before their big Week Three showdown with Wisconsin was called off due to the concerning COVID situation in Madison.
Settling from the dust of the Big Ten’s crazy first three weeks of play, Purdue and Northwestern find themselves sharing the driver’s seat of the West, and should the Badgers’ have another game canceled, Saturday evening’s matchup all but decides the division.
Thus, we need to take a look at what the ‘Cats are going up against in what figures to be the most important game of their season. Let’s get started.
Aidan O’Connell got his first start last year in Evanston, guiding the Boilermakers to a 24-22 comeback win and has kept it rolling ever since. Through two games, he’s passed for 653 yards and five touchdowns while completing 60-of-85 passing attempts, good for 7.68 yards-per-attempt. O’Connell is similar to Ramsey in that neither have particularly strong arms, but both have an innate ability to pick apart defenses in the short and intermediate games whilst avoiding mistakes.
Thus, head coach Jeff Brohm has implemented a scheme where O’Connell almost never has to throw it over the top of a defense or dissect them through multiple reads. Rather, O’Connell tries to get rid of the ball as soon as possible, and into the hands of his star receivers — David Bell, Rondale Moore and Milton Wright.
If you’re staring at that final name puzzled by its inclusion, don’t be. With Moore sidelined the first two games, the sophomore Wright has stepped up, totaling 13 receptions for 185 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile Bell has simply been scorching the face of the earth with 22 receptions for 243 yards and four touchdowns, placing him first in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game and receptions per game.
The following plays are short in yardage and don’t seem too concerning, but add up all those paper cuts and eventually you bleed out (Bell is No. 3 and Wright is No. 0).
Defenses seem incapable of jumping on those short routes due to the sheer size of both Wright and Bell, who stand at both 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-2, respectively. All either one of them has to do is pin the defensive back behind their shoulders and box out like Wright did in that second clip, and they can grab the ball beyond the defender’s reach.
Even if the corner does manage to get in front of one of them, they can still get mossed by one of these basketball-sized wideouts.
Not a lot you can do when Bell just reaches down from his perch and snatches the ball out of your hands while simultaneously ripping away your dignity as a lockdown cover man.
In tracking the entire Iowa-Purdue game, 32 of O’Connell’s 50 passing attempts were sent in the direction of Wright and Bell (i.e. 64 percent of his total passes were targeted at them). Think about how this past week seven different Northwestern receivers caught a pass and only John Raine had more than three, whereas Purdue kicked off their season by having the two receivers combine for almost two-thirds of their targets. It’s a very different philosophy, but since Bell can make plays like the one above, why wouldn't you keep giving him the ball?
Apparently, O’Connell has the same thought, as he quite literally ignores other open options in his passing reads in favor of forcing the ball to Bell or Wright when they are double or even triple covered.
Bell and Wright are both completely sandwiched by Hawkeyes, but O’Connell has hardwired himself to default to either one of them amidst any difficult scenario, and bypasses easier throws in favor of forcing it to them. Even when it works, it’s almost laughable how much he ignores his other options.
You might be saying, “Seven-yard gain to David Bell, what’s wrong with that?” Well look to the top of your screen and you’ll see that poor Amad Anderson Jr. was just chilling all by himself, ready to break off a huge catch-and-run with almost no impediments.
So just load up all of your secondary on Wright and Bell, and you stop the Boilermakers, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Purdue’s running back Zander Horvath is not a burner and has a weird penchant for spamming the most rigid spin move ever, but he gets the job done. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he mirrors his oversized receiving core and is a pain to tackle once he breaks into the second level.
On this play, Iowa had three players are already lined up in a vicinity only occupied by Wright and Bell, and a fourth comes over as the safety slides a few steps toward them at the snap.
With the quarterback handing it off and another receiver going in motion, it leaves six blockers in front of Horvath, which is all he needs to gash Iowa for a big gain.
Overall, Purdue is hard to stop because they spread you out with five available receiving options, and with Rondale Moore back, they have three super dangerous options that are hard to cover. Even without him, the Boilermakers still found success by keeping no extra blockers home for O’Connell in favor of giving him five options to choose from.
Five guys within a 15-yard radius of O’Connell, Wright sits in the gap much like RCB does for Ramsey, and it’s an easy first down on second-and-long. Beautiful.
Purdue is so committed to the “spread it and sling it” philosophy that they even ran five basically vertical routes in what was virtually a goal-to-go situation, and it worked (albeit due to a horrible miscommunication by the Iowa defense).
The Northwestern defense has been flat out awesome this year, epitomizing the Mike Hankwitz’ bend-but-don’t-break mentality. Eight total interceptions, several of them in opponents’ territory and in clutch times of the game, makes them the best defense Purdue will have faced in this young, discombobulated season.
-Allowing 54.4% of opponents passes to be completed (68 completions in 125 pass attempts)— B1G Northwestern Fan (@NUCatFan23) November 10, 2020
-Just 50.98% of passes by Tagovailoa, Petras, and Martinez were completed
-4th in P5 with 192.3 passing yards allowed per game#GoCats #B1GCats
But Purdue likewise brings receivers to the table that the NU secondary has yet to deal with. One could argue Bell and Moore are the two best receivers in the West division, and Wright is at least top-10 in my opinion.
One key to stopping Purdue is generating pressure on O’Connell, who’s already been sacked six times in two games. However, Northwestern might need extra rushers to do that, as the defensive line has not been particularly disruptive as a whole so far this season. However, sending linebackers or corners into the fray just leaves more one-on-one scenarios on the outside for Purdue’s dynamic trifecta of receivers to exploit.
It’s going to be tough, especially with the game happening in West Lafayette where the Boilermakers are just as excited as the Wildcats with their undefeated start and have no intentions of stopping it. It’s time to see if Greg Newsome, JR Pace, Brandon Joseph and co. are just a good-but-not-great secondary or if they’re a nationally elite group capable of stopping one of the conference’s most dangerous passing attacks.