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Interviewing the Enemy: Q&A with Hammer and Rails

The top teams in the West will clash this Saturday en route to the division title.

Northwestern’s toughest matchup of the season thus far is right around the corner as the Wildcats are set to take on the Purdue Boilermakers on the road in West Lafayette. Both teams are off to one of their best starts in the past decade, but one will hand the other its first loss of the season and soar to the top of the Big Ten West standings.

After the Boilermakers’ week off due to the cancelation of their Wisconsin matchup, Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails broke down what he’s seen so far from the explosive Purdue passing offense and how the Wildcats can shut it down.

INU: How does having a week off due to the Wisconsin game cancelation impact Purdue heading into the matchup against Northwestern? How do you think the cancelation will impact Purdue’s chances of winning the Big Ten West?

H&R: I don’t think it hurts. We officially dodge Wisconsin, who has made us a punching bag by winning the last 14 in a row against us dating back to 2003. That’s the longest losing streak to a single opponent in our history. We also get another week to get potentially our two best players, George Karlaftis and Rondale Moore, back. Karlaftis left the Illinois game with an apparent ankle injury, and you know how those go. It could be a week. It could be a month. As for Rondale, we have no idea what is going on there. Coach Brohm & co. continue to be tightlipped about it, but if we don’t see him this week I have my doubts we ever see him again given the excitement around his announcement he would return.

I really think the winner of this game has a leg up in the Big Ten West. Everyone else, aside from Wisconsin, already has at least two losses in this eight game sprint. We have Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers and Indiana after that. I think it is reasonable to see Purdue going 3-1 against those four if it beats Northwestern, and that is enough depending on what Wisconsin does.

If you could beat the Badgers after this game it would really help us out.

INU: Since the Big Ten is so inconsistent and unpredictable this year, how significant are Purdue’s two wins over Illinois and Iowa, and what do they say about the team?

H&R: What impressed me the most about the Iowa game was our ability to make plays when it mattered. That game was going sideways, and the Hawkeyes were driving for the clinching score when Dedrick Mackey forced a huge fumble on a play inside the 30. Aidan O’Connell then led an impressive drive for the win, and Purdue’s defense actually got a stop on Iowa’s final drive. O’Connell now has three game-winning drives with less than five minutes left in his career. Not bad for a former fourth-string walk-on that didn’t even play until midway through last season.

Against Illinois I think the important thing is we avoided another Nevada. Last year we were in Reno for a similar game. Purdue was seemingly cruising up three scores, then the bottom fell out. The offense went stagnant, the defense couldn’t get a stop, and we lost. At least against the Illini, we were able to stop them on their final possession in the red zone (thank God) and escape with a win.

INU: What makes Purdue’s passing offense so effective this year, and what changes have you seen from past seasons?

H&R: David Bell being an All-American really helps. He has been incredible in the early going, but he is not doing it by himself. Milton Wright has been a very pleasant surprise as a No. 2 receiver, and the passing game has been diverse even without Rondale. We have an abundance of talent in our receiver room, and it is really beginning to show. One player I really like is freshman Maliq Carr, who is going to be really good in time.

The offensive line has also been really good, and we have a real running game now with Zander Horvath. He has been a very pleasant surprise since King Doerue, our leading rusher from last season, has been out with a hamstring injury. For the first time since maybe the days of Mike Alstott we have a big, physical runner that can just punish teams late like he did against Iowa.

INU: How has Purdue’s rushing attack improved so significantly this season, and what can Northwestern do to limit Zander Horvath?

H&R: Like I said, Horvath has been a big surprise. He is also a former walk-on, but he has exhibited a great combination of size, durability and athleticism. He can gain tough yards, and he can have breakaway plays too. The offensive line is also a lot better this season and is opening holes for him. Horvath is now up to three consecutive games over 100 yards, which, by my guess, has not happened since the Truman administration (I am kidding. We’re looking at Bush 1 at the latest!).

INU: What do the Wildcats have to do to stop David Bell? Are there weaknesses in his game Northwestern can capitalize on?

H&R: Bell has just been fantastic. He is so precise in his route running, and as the final play against Illinois showed, he is great with the ball in the air. In high school he was also a part of Warren Central’s basketball team that went 32-0, won Indiana’s class 4A state title, and he hit the game-winner to knock out Romeo Langford during Langford’s senior season.

I don’t think there is anything where Bell just wow’s you in terms of speed, athleticism, etc. He is just really, really good at everything he does. He gets open. He has great hands. He can win jump balls. He is pretty much the total package.

INU: After a strong performance against Iowa but then giving up 24 points to an Illinois team on their fourth-string quarterback, what can Northwestern expect from Purdue’s defense?

H&R: Oh boy. It has been up and down to be sure. It made big plays and held Iowa relatively well, but the Hawkeyes really helped with 10 penalties for 100 yards and by not committing to the run game. Illinois continued the proud tradition of quarterbacks with barely any playing time going nuts against us. The run defense was pretty awful, and we got way too complacent late. They also had far too many open receivers. With Karlaftis out, the pass rush really struggled. We need big George in a bad way.

One positive is that we have been much better at creating turnovers. We even had a defensive score against Illinois! Overall, I like our chances if we can keep teams under 25 points because the offense really can get going, especially if Rondale returns.

INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern after starting their season 3-0, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most threatening to Purdue?

H&R: I think the most impressive aspect is that first week against Maryland given what the Terps have done the last two weeks. Did you guys lock Taulia Tagovailoa in a bathroom stall in the locker room? You guys have a really solid defense, and I am concerned with how stagnant we got at times in the last two games. It feels like we have been able to move the ball, but only just enough for the win. O’Connell is almost no threat to run whatsoever, so if you get after him, you can stagnate us pretty quickly.

INU: What is a matchup that Purdue needs to win in order to beat Northwestern?

H&R: I think we need to keep running the ball. That opens things up so much for us. It allows Bell to face more single coverages and O’Connell to have time in the pocket, where he is really accurate. The secondary also has to be better. Peyton Ramsey is a lot better than Coran Taylor and has experience from seeing us multiple times in his IU career. Last season he passed for 337 yards and three TDs against us while rushing for 42 and two more. If he does that again, Northwestern wins easily.

INU: What is your game prediction?

H&R: If we get Karlaftis back, I like our defense. He is so critical to what we’re doing and getting pressure. If Rondale returns too that would be great, but I fear there would be too much, “RONDALE IS BACK! WE HAVE THIS!” I think we can see a game a lot like two years ago when Northwestern’s defense was great in the second half for a 31-27 lead. That was even with Rondale running absolutely wild in the first half. My heart wants me to say Purdue wins in a close one, but your defense is awfully good.