Still looking for its second win in Big Ten play, Northwestern will take on Purdue at Wrigley Field on Saturday. The Boilermakers have pulled off some big upsets this year and have failed to drop any games to egregiously bad opponents, which has kept a smile on the faces of Jeff Brohm and all the football faithful in West Lafayette.
To learn a little more about the Boilermakers and get a different perspective on how Saturday’s contest may go, we talked to Travis Miller, founder and site manager of SB Nation affiliate Hammer and Rails, for this week’s edition of Interviewing the Enemy:
Inside NU: Let’s talk about something completely unrelated to the actual Boilermakers team to start. In a typical year, Purdue brings a noticeable but not overwhelming contingent of fans to Evanston. Do you expect more Boilermaker fans than usual to make the trip because of the team’s quality and the game being at Wrigley?
Travis Miller: I think so. I know I am going with my family and one of my other writers. I have heard from a lot of Purdue fans who are interested in coming, especially since we’re having a better than expected season. We have not won seven games in a regular season since 2007, and now we have a real good shot at eight. I think that alone makes things more exciting. Now, we also get to play in a historic venue, and a lot of Purdue fans are also Cubs fans. As a big Cubs fan myself, I am elated for Saturday. I got my tickets as soon as I could in July. Wrigley brings me a lot of happy memories from when I was a kid ever since my grandfather took me to my first game there in 1988. I can’t be alone in that.
There have been three World Series games at Wrigley in my lifetime. Once it has been played, there will have been only one Purdue game. When you have something more rare than a World Series game at Wrigley, you go.
INU: Okay, onto football-related things. Can you break down what exactly has been going on at the quarterback position this year in West Lafayette? Aidan O’Connell seems to be the guy under center now, but how did we get here, and are there any facets to look out for on Saturday?
Miller: Jack Plummer started the season and he was… fine. He started the first four games and didn’t throw an interception, but against Notre Dame and Illinois, the offense really stalled and O’Connell came in to spark things. It led to two picks against each, but O’Connell did lead the game-winning drive against the Illini. He has been the starter since and he struggled against Minnesota and Wisconsin, but in the rest of the games he has been nearly flawless. He has the offense really humming right now because he is spreading the ball around with Bell playing like an early NFL Draft pick. Even last week against Ohio State, he was near 400 yards with 4 TDs.
It has been amazing to see his development. He was a walk-on to start his career and made his first career start two seasons ago against Northwestern. Now, he is playing like he could get an NFL training camp invite. It is not like Plummer was bad, either. O’Connell has just been better, completing almost 75 percent of his passes while being more of a deep threat, as well.
INU: Last year, Greg Newsome II was able to limit the explosiveness of David Bell. With Newsome now off to the NFL and Bell still suiting up for the Boilermakers, how big of a day do you expect the talented wide receiver to have? Project a stat line for us, if you can.
Miller: Bell has been amazing of late. His Iowa and Michigan State performances were two of the best in school history. Wisconsin kept him in check by completely taking away the running game and bracketing, but in all other games, he has shown just how polished of a receiver he is. He knows how to get open. He knows the soft spots in the zone. He can beat most guys one-on-one. He can break tackles. He is not as explosive as Rondale Moore, but he is incredibly consistent. A 10-catch, 150-yard game would not surprise me in the least. He could got for even more since he has been over 200 yards twice, too.
INU: Shifting to defense, obviously George Karlaftis is a major problem-maker for opposing offenses, but who else on the Purdue defense should ‘Cats fans be looking out for, and why?
Miller: Karlaftis does so much even without putting up big stats. He just demands attention. He is disruptive in forcing bad throws and scrambles even without hitting the quarterback. Since most teams have to devote two or even three guys to him, it opens up everyone else to make plays. When Purdue has had a second half lead, it has been able to let him work while the secondary has taken advantage of opposing quarterbacks pressing. Cam Allen and Jalen Graham have picked up a bunch of interceptions as a result. Graham had a huge pick-six against Nebraska, and Allen has four interceptions on the year. If DaMarcus Mitchell continues to get healthy he can really take advantage of the attention Karlaftis demands.
INU: Purdue has been known as the Spoilermakers this year because of its takedowns of then-undefeated and highly-ranked Iowa and Michigan State. Northwestern doesn’t possess quite the prestige as those programs do this year, so do you have any worries about the game being somewhat of a trap for Jeff Brohm’s squad of giant-killers?
Miller: I am always worried. I am a Purdue fan. We have a very nasty habit of doing something really good, then spiking the momentum soon after. While we should be able to win these next two, I wouldn’t be totally shocked if we lost, either. O’Connell has been really good, but if he throws an early pick, it tends to make the second one more likely, which makes the third one more likely and so on. The key is him keeping the game clean. If he plays like he has been playing, we should be fine.
INU Alright, what’s your final score prediction for this one? Give us an idea of how you expect the game to go, if you’d like.
Miller: I would love to get our running game going. We have the worst running game in the conference by far. You have the worst run defense in the conference by far. I don’t expect to roll up 300 yards or anything, but getting in the 125-150 range would be tremendous for us.
I also expect the defense to play much better than last week. Aside from the Ohio State game, it has held everyone else to 30 points or less, and only Wisconsin made it to 30. We’ve benefitted from playing a lot of very bad passing teams (Illinois, UConn, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are all 100th in the country or worse). The pass defense was more than fine in those games. The offense has also done really well in playing keep away with long drives in the second half while leading. I can see that continuing on Saturday.