After Northwestern (1-9, 1-5 B1G) suffered a brutal 31-3 loss at the hands of Minnesota, the ‘Cats will now have to turn their attention to another quality opponent on the road. Purdue (6-4, 4-3 B1G) is hoping to build upon the momentum gained by the Boilermakers’ 31-24 upset of then-No. 21 Illinois in Champaign. Northwestern will look to be “spoilermakers” against the Boilermakers on Saturday, while Purdue continues its march toward a berth in the Big Ten Championship game. Below are the three most important matchups for Saturday.
Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton vs. Charlie Jones
Senior Charlie Jones has been one of the best wide receivers in the country all season long. Jones was named to the All-Big Ten First Team by the media and coaches at the end of 2021 as a return specialist. He played primarily in that role at Iowa both in 2020 and 2021 before having his breakout season this year at Purdue.
Jones has already surpassed 1,000 receiving yards within the first 10 games of the season, after tallying only 323 receiving yards at Iowa in 2021. The Deerfield, Ill. native is currently first in the Big Ten and sixth in the country with 1,010 receiving yards.
Purdue relies heavily on its passing game, throwing on 57.2% of total plays this season. The Boilermakers trust their passing game because it is effective. Purdue averages 291.9 passing yards per game (19th in FBS), and passes caught by Jones account for 101 of those 291.9 yards per game.
Enter Mitchell and Hampton. The corners (and also the wind) were able to limit Ohio State’s receivers from reaching their normal levels of production a few weeks ago, while Minnesota barely attempted to get their passing game active. This week, Mitchell and Hampton will be tested once again while trying to contain Purdue, especially when matched up with Jones.
Malik Washington vs. Reese Taylor
With Northwestern’s uncertain quarterback situation, someone else on the offense will have to step up this weekend. Evan Hull and the running game will most likely become the main focus of Purdue’s defensive scheme, so the passing game will need its top option to be effective this weekend. Senior wide receiver Malik Washington, despite Northwestern’s inconsistent quarterback play, has put together a solid season for the ‘Cats. Washington ranks fifth in the Big Ten with 55 receptions and sixth with 616 receiving yards.
Senior Reese Taylor has been Purdue’s top cornerback this season. Taylor has 22 tackles, four passes defensed on the season and one interception, which are all the highest totals by cornerbacks on Purdue’s roster. However, top receivers have had good games against Purdue this season. Syracuse wide receiver Oronde Gadsen II, Minnesota wide receiver Daniel Jackson and Maryland wide receiver Corey Dyches all were able to tally more than 100 receiving yards against Purdue’s defense. All three also did so on six or fewer receptions.
Purdue’s defense can be exploited via the big play, and Washington’s ability to get open against Taylor will be an extremely important part of Saturday’s matchup.
Peter Skoronski and Caleb Tiernan vs. Jack Sullivan, Khordae Sydnor and Kydran Jenkins
Another Northwestern personnel group that will need players to step up is the offensive line. Whoever is playing quarterback on Saturday will need good protection from Purdue’s pass rush. Although the Boilermakers have a mediocre 23 sacks this season (58th out of 131 FBS teams), their defensive end trio of Sullivan, Sydnor and Jenkins each have at least three sacks and five tackles for loss this season. Northwestern will need to stop that trio from being disruptive in both the running and passing game on Saturday.
Because Sullivan, Sydnor and Jenkins are edge rushers, the responsibility of blocking them will fall on the shoulders of Northwestern’s offensive tackles. Junior Peter Skoronski and sophomore Caleb Tiernan will have to play well on Saturday. Skoronski’s abilities are well known not just within the Big Ten, but also nationally. Skoronski was a 2021 All-Big Ten first team player (as voted by the coaches), and was an AP First Team Preseason All-American at the start of this season. He is also widely-considered as the top draft-eligible offensive lineman, and is sixth on Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent 2023 NFL draft rankings.
While Skoronski is well known, Tiernan is much more of an unknown, with only three appearances before the start of the 2022 season. Sullivan, Sydnor and Jenkins are listed at 275, 270 and 265 pounds respectively, while Skoronski and Tiernan are both listed at 315 pounds. Northwestern’s tackles do have a major size advantage against the Boilermakers’ edge rushers, and they will need to use that mismatch well on Saturday. If Skoronski and Tiernan can secure the edges of the offensive line, Northwestern’s chances to win on Saturday will surely increase.