The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up is the long-awaited matchup at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where Northwestern will face Purdue in their second to last matchup before potential postseason play.
Returning production: 78 percent overall (Offense 85 percent, Defense 70 percent)
2020 record: 2-4
Head coach: Jeff Brohm
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 42nd
2020 S&P+ Offense: 36th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 60th
Every Big Ten teams’ season last year had some ups and downs — for the Boilermakers, the 2020 season was up for about two games and, well, then it just went down for good. Though one may never know what could have happened in the two canceled matchups of the eight Purdue was scheduled to play, it’s safe to say that last year’s team probably wouldn’t have beaten an average Wisconsin and a solid Indiana team.
That being said, Purdue’s losses never came at a deficit of more than 10 points. Additionally, both Purdue’s offense and defense remained mid-tier in the Big Ten’s rankings despite only winning two matchups. Running back Zander Horvath and wide receiver David Bell managed to uplift an offense which faced a change at quarterback midseason due to injury and both of them are returning to continue what are shaping up to be successful collegiate careers. With junior George Karlaftis returning on the defensive end along with six other defensive starters, head coach Jeff Brohm has a lot of talent to work with entering the 2021 season.
Even while facing midseason quarterback trouble, Purdue’s strength last season was their offense. Quarterback Aidan O’Connell kicked off the season for Purdue with two wins but was struck with a season-ending foot injury after the Boilermakers’ loss to Northwestern. O’Connell managed to throw for 916 yards and seven touchdowns and looked promising before his unfortunate exit.
Luckily for Purdue, Aidan Plummer stepped in to fill in for O’Connell and carved out almost the exact same statline for the rest of the season, barring the victories. As of right now, Brohm has not announced who will take the helm for Purdue’s opener, but it’s clear he has two solid options out back to choose from.
The Boilermakers’ also boast two impressive playmakers that opponents will have to worry about. Running back Zander Horvath averaged 124 yards per game last season, which landed him at third in the final Big Ten rankings, albeit with a smaller sample size of games to choose from than most teams. Additionally, David Bell led the conference with an average of 104.2 receiving yards per game as a sophomore and is shaping up to be one of the best wideouts in the country. With Rondale Moore now in the NFL after opting out last season, expect more of the same from Bell.
Overall, though their offense as a whole is not the most threatening, Purdue should pick up where they left off in the middle of the pack with enough talent to potentially give themselves a boost in the rankings. Ultimately, they have enough talent at the most important offensive positions to still be a threat to any opponent.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Boilers were nothing short of disappointing in 2020. Their rush coverage was decent, only allowing 50 rushing first downs in six total games and just a touch under 145 rushing yards per game. However, their defensive line struggled to pressure the quarterback and force enough mistakes to change the course of the game. Purdue ranked dead last in the Big Ten in sacks with only five on the season. For comparison, Indiana played just two more games than Purdue and still finished with 25 total sacks.
The absence of DE George Karlaftis from contests, whether it had been from injury or COVID-19, was clearly devastating and it just goes to show how important he is to this team. Karlaftis was voted Second Team All-Big Ten in 2020 and will likely be the Boilermakers’ go-to pass rusher in 2021. However, similarly to the offense, having one or two star players on either side of the ball will do little to move Purdue above the middle-tier of the Big Ten, even with Karlaftis’ return.
When it came to preventing the pass, Purdue’s performance what somewhat subpar. Over the course of their six games, the Boilermakers gave up an average of 254.2 passing yards per game, good enough for 94th in all of college football in that category. Purdue’s secondary also struggled mightily to record interceptions, finishing with just three on the season. Sophomore cornerback Cam Allen led the way with two of his own.
Three Players to Know
WR David Bell
Junior David Bell may be one of the most exciting players to watch in the Big Ten this season. After a phenomenal freshman year in 2019, starting nine games beside All-American receiver Rondale Moore, he had the spotlight to himself in 2020 as Moore opted out of the modified season. Bell finished his six game streak with 53 receptions for 625 yards and First Team All-Big Ten honors. The Indianapolis native is just getting started as his name continues to climb on the national radar.
DE George Karlaftis
Unfortunately an injury and COVID-19 kept George Karlaftis from seeing the field much in 2020, but they didn’t stop him from pulling in two of Purdue’s five sacks and earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors. The former four-star recruit still hasn’t had a chance to really show the conference what he’s capable of (despite a massive freshman season overshadowed by veteran players like Bell). However, following nearly two years of improvement off the field, something about this upcoming season feels like it’s his time to shine.
RB Zander Horvath
Horvath was a pleasant surprise for the Boilermakers in 2020, having his best season to date. The current fifth-year rushed for 442 yards in six games, which is just under 60 yards more than he rushed for in 2019’s full-length season. Though Purdue usually runs a pass-heavy offense due to their consistently strong receiving corps, Horvath can add a notable running threat if he continues the momentum he finished last season with. He’s a huge threat out of the Boilermaker backfield.