Northwestern takes on Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Boilermakers beat the ‘Cats 24-22 on a game-winning field goal last season in a contest that featured two bottom of the barrel Big Ten West teams. Saturday’s matchup will have much greater significance in the race for the West. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will continue its undefeated start and three reasons why it won’t.
Why Northwestern will beat Purdue
Northwestern keeps generating turnovers
Northwestern’s primary defensive focus heading into the 2020 season revolved around generating more turnovers. With nine turnovers in three games, the Wildcat defense has delivered thus far on the task. While I would say NU needs to win the turnover margin to win the game, surprisingly, the ‘Cats have not come up with more takeaways than the opposing team in close wins against both Nebraska and Iowa. The key on Saturday will be to continue forcing timely turnovers.
The Wildcat backfield finds success on the ground
Many believe the Wildcats will need to torch Purdue through the air on Saturday to win. However, that may not be the best recipe for a victory. Northwestern should not want to get into a shootout with Purdue. Instead, Kurt Anderson’s offensive line will need to neutralize the defensive line and open holes for the running game. Whether Isaiah Bowser or Drake Anderson starts on Saturday, either one’s performance will be indicative of Northwestern’s ability to play the game at its own pace, which will open up the passing game.
Northwestern contains David Bell
In Northwestern’s 2018 opener in West Lafayette, the Wildcats barely squeaked by the Boilermakers. The game was so tight in large part due to Rondale Moore’s 11 receptions for 109 yards and two rushes for 79 yards with a receiving and rushing touchdown. While it currently appears the Boilermakers will be without Moore on Saturday due to injury, the Wildcats will need to contain Moore’s heir, David Bell. Through two games, Bell has produced 22 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern will likely have Greg Newsome shadow Bell for the entirety of the game.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Purdue
The defensive line fails to generate a pass rush
If there has been one weak spot of the Wildcat defense so far, it’s been the pass rush. On Saturday, Northwestern cannot afford to give Aidan O’Connell a bounty of time to throw the football. In addition to Bell and Moore, Purdue also has a talented receiver in Milton Wright. Coverage on Purdue’s receiving core will break down if the Wildcat defensive line fails to get home. Mike Hankwitz needs to be a bit more aggressive in blitzing linebackers on Saturday.
Northwestern is too aggressive in the passing game
As I alluded to earlier, Northwestern should not want to get into a shootout with Purdue, as it will not end well. Purdue’s personnel is built for a shootout while the Wildcats’ is not. There is no question Northwestern’s offense has improved considerably from last season, but without a true No. 1 receiver, this offense is better suited for a balanced approach. Northwestern needs to win the time of possession battle so that its defense does not become fatigued early.
Purdue comes rested and ready to play
In last week’s press conference before the Wildcats played Nebraska, Pat Fitzgerald said that facing the Huskers coming off of a quasi-bye was “a big advantage for Nebraska.” After the Boilermakers game was canceled against Wisconsin last week, Fitz’s statements rang true once again this week. At 2-0 and coming off of a bye week, the Boilermakers will be rested and fired up for the game. With enormous Big Ten West implications on the line, this may be the biggest game for Purdue since the Joe Tiller era. The Wildcats cannot afford to let the Boilermakers create momentum early.