Two games left. This horrific season is almost over. At 1-9, Northwestern is at risk of finishing with its worst record since 1989, when it lost every game.
This week, the ‘Cats are on the road again, this time in West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers (6-4, 4-3 B1G). Purdue currently sits in a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West, with Wisconsin nipping at its heels at 3-4. This game actually means something for the Boilermakers, which means Northwestern will be presented with arguably the best opportunity in sports: to play spoiler.
The pressure is off. Here’s to hoping the ‘Cats get up for this game and take advantage. Below are three reasons why they will, and three reasons why they’ll get handed yet another L in a season full of them.
Why Northwestern will beat Purdue
Purdue’s comparatively weaker rushing game
Two weeks ago against Ohio State, Northwestern’s subpar defensive front had to deal with the third-most effective rushing attack in the Big Ten by yards per game; the Buckeyes had 207 rushing yards. Then, last week, the ‘Cats took on Minnesota (a game I’ll avoid discussing as much as I can) and got torched by Mohammed Ibrahim. Ibrahim is a stud, but the Northwestern defense allowed him to put up 178 rushing yards on his own and score three touchdowns. The Gophers ran for 302 yards in total. All this is to say, Northwestern can’t stop the run, and it’s been burned by really good running games the past two weeks.
The good news is, Purdue doesn’t have that. The Boilermakers average 127.2 yards per game on the ground, 10th in the Big Ten. It’s certainly a better matchup for Northwestern. The ‘Cats’ defense still has to come to play on Saturday, but it should be able to breathe a little after a few weeks of extreme pressure.
Coach Fitzgerald was very complimentary of Washington in his presser this week, as he should have been. The senior was one of very few bright spots in the Minnesota game last week, racking up 97 yards on six receptions.
Washington has had somewhat of an inconsistent year for a player many hoped would emerge as a true number one option. Some games he hasn’t been noticeable at all, but it’s fair to chalk some of that up to inconsistent quarterback play. And, admittedly, his numbers look solid. Washington is fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards with 616.
If Washington has another big performance against Purdue, the ‘Cats’ odds of winning skyrocket, especially given the fact that Purdue’s secondary isn’t very good. It ranks fourth in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game.
Coach Fitz has a lot on his mind. This season has been rough, and he’s going to have to make some tough calls this offseason. With mounting pressure from fans to oust not just one, but both of his coordinators, it would be easy for Fitz to turn his attention to that instead of a few meaningless games here at the end of this season.
But that just isn’t how he rolls. Nobody is questioning Fitz’s dedication to getting this team a win or two before this class of seniors graduates. However, it is impossible to ignore that Fitz is tasked with motivating a 1-9 football team playing pretty meaningless football. For Northwestern to even have a chance on Saturday, he needs to succeed at steering this current ship.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Purdue
This is a curveball. Don’t get me wrong, I love Evan Hull. Who doesn’t? All year he’s been a bright spot for this team. Hull leads the team in rushing, and is second in receiving. He’s strong, shifty, and he’s got moxie. He’s everything you want in a starting back.
But the formula has been to lean entirely on Hull, and it isn’t working. The Northwestern offense lacks creativity, and it doesn’t have enough talent to be boring. Giving the ball to Hull dominates the game plan, and the rest of the Big Ten knows that.
No more Evan Hull Wildcat plays. It was cool for about a quarter against Ohio State; now, it’s a guaranteed 4-yard-or-less run.
Hull needs to be involved, otherwise the ‘Cats will be miserable to watch on Saturday. But let’s let the quarterbacks (who knows how many will play) air the ball out a little more. It may not work. In fact, it may lead to an absolute massacre, but it can’t hurt to change up the game plan a little. Quit doing the same thing week after week and losing. It’s the definition of insanity.
Two weeks ago against Ohio State, the Northwestern secondary held Marvin Harrison Jr. to only 51 yards. Granted, the weather was horrific, but it was still an impressive performance. Then, against Minnesota, no receiver had more than 34 yards. It does feel like the passing defense has improved in recent weeks, but it will have arguably its toughest task of the season trying to contain Purdue senior Charlie Jones.
The Illinois native leads the Big Ten in receiving yards with 1,010. He’s coming off a bit of a down game for his standards, but he still had 66 yards and a touchdown against Illinois. He’s also had games this season where he’s absolutely torched opposing defenses, such as tallying 188 yards at Syracuse in September. More recently, Jones put up 132 yards on Nebraska and two touchdowns.
Jones isn’t an athletic freak, but the numbers don’t lie. He’s really good and is going to be a problem for a Northwestern secondary that is, overall, very middle of the pack when it comes to defending the pass.
Lack of focus and motivation
If Fitz fails to guide his team, this game has the potential to be a disaster. The Wildcats seem like a pretty dedicated, close-knit team. And, again, it’s hard to imagine a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team lacking in effort. But it’s something worth mentioning.
Imagine playing an entire season of football, and being 1-9. You’re exhausted. You’re fed up. You’re ready for the offseason. This roster is undeniably grappling with those feelings right now. It must overcome them. Hopefully, the ‘Cats come out on Saturday playing for their coaches, and, more importantly, their senior teammates. If they do, Northwestern will at least be in the game.