This isn’t a joke. Northwestern is one win away from clinching bowl eligibility in a season most thought would be a throwaway coming off of a 1-11 season and a tumultuous summer most wish to forget. Yet, here we are, and it feels good.
Following a shocking victory over Wisconsin, the ‘Cats need to win one of their last two games to fully earn their spot in a bowl game. This Saturday’s contest against Purdue is their first opportunity to do so. It will also likely be the final time the ‘Cats play at Ryan Field before renovations commence (pending a vote of the Evanston City Council next week).
So, before the stadium as we know it opens its doors for the last time, let’s take a look at why the ‘Cats will beat Purdue and clinch bowl eligibility, yet why Northwestern’s final game at Ryan Field might end in defeat.
Why Northwestern will beat Purdue
Ben Bryant’s offensive dominance
Let me say it first: at times, Bryant looked like a Heisman-level quarterback at times against Wisconsin. Starting his first game since Sept. 30, Bryant came out slinging, throwing for almost 200 yards with two touchdown passes. He looked in command of the offense, helping the team convert over 60% of third-down plays and executing many crucial passes to put the ‘Cats in prime position to win the game. Bryant hit the ground running and immediately got to work, delivering a spark for an offense that’s been highly inconsistent with Brendan Sullivan under center. Sullivan had his fair share of moments, but Bryant’s consistency is paramount in keeping the offense on the field and scoring points.
If Bryant could put on a show against Wisconsin, he can certainly do it against Purdue. The Boilermakers’ defense ranks among the worst in the Big Ten in terms of yards allowed per game with 389.7, followed only by Indiana. Wisconsin only gives up an average of 332.7, which falls in the middle of the pack. That statistic makes me confident that Bryant will have another strong performance and should be able to garner even more yards and points against a fragile defense. He needs to continue throwing the ball confidently and not be afraid to take risks against a defense that gives up a lot of big plays. If he does that while occasionally allowing Cam Porter to break through on the ground, I think the ‘Cats’ offense could have a field day on Saturday and put a high number on the scoreboard.
The defense is doing its job
The Northwestern offense has been inconsistent throughout the season, but NU’s defense has remained a solid unit. There have been occasional injuries, but the ‘Cats’ defense has shown poise, taking on and beating some of the better offenses in the conference. Last week’s performance was impressive, holding Wisconsin to 10 points. It would’ve been three points allowed without a garbage time touchdown, making the effort appear even more impressive.
Purdue’s offense, like Northwestern’s, also has a massive variance in points scored per game. Last week, PU put up 49 against Minnesota after having combined for 48 points in its previous four games. Against the Wildcats’ defense, expect strong coverage of the run and tight coverage in the secondary. Purdue likes to run the ball, and NU’s defense should be able to aptly defend against Devin Mockobee and Tyrone Tracy Jr. Northwestern’s secondary has also been a success story and will hope to make Hudson Card’s life difficult. These advantages give the ‘Cats’ defense an upper hand against the Boilermakers’ offense and should put the team in a position to capitalize.
We have to give props to David Braun, right? Braun has been excellent in his first season as Northwestern’s head coach, especially given the far-from-ideal circumstances he’s been dealt. Indeed, he is the first Northwestern head coach with five or more wins in his first season since Walter McCormack in 1903, so it’s been quite a while since a first-year coach has been this successful in Evanston right out of the gate.
On Wednesday, Braun was officially awarded the full-time job and has the clear backing of his players, the coaching staff and the fans. The newfound stability in Braun’s job status might not translate to the field on Saturday, but his coaching positively influences NU’s performance regardless. Braun’s idea of complementary football played out last weekend, as the offense and defense both showed up when it mattered most — combining to masterfully dissect Wisconsin’s gameplan inside and out. Against Purdue, leave it to Braun’s coaching and influence on the team to drive the ‘Cats to a huge victory, one that could matter the most when looking back on this season.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Purdue
Purdue has momentum
I know the Boilermakers have only won three games this year and are currently in last place in the Big Ten West, but for the first time this season, it finally feels like Purdue has something going for it. The win against Minnesota last week was a huge confidence booster, especially given the rest of the season’s results. It could give the Boilermakers momentum going into this game against Northwestern and deliver a blow to NU’s bowl aspirations.
Card and Mockobee had big games, and could be in for further impressive showings against the ‘Cats. The tandem is the heart of Purdue’s offense, and having the two at their best will be a key to winning the game and overwhelming Northwestern’s defense. Card has been incredibly disappointing this season, taking over from now-Las Vegas Raiders starter Aidan O’Connell, who led Purdue to a Big Ten West title last season. The slide from first to last has been drastic, but there has been a visible improvement in his play recently. At the end of the season, with only two games remaining, Purdue has newfound traction and might be able to beat the ‘Cats partly because of it.
The pressure might be too much to handle
A lot is riding on this game. And I mean a lot. First, this will be the final home game for many players on this team, and Senior Day celebrations will be in tow. These athletes put so much heart and soul into the team, so getting a win would be huge for them as they look ahead to the rest of their lives, potentially beyond the football field.
It would also mean a lot to win the (probable) final game at Ryan Field, an apt sendoff for a stadium representing Northwestern Wildcats football for 97 years. Yes, the new stadium will still be called Ryan Field and will sit in the exact location of the current stadium, but it certainly won’t feel the same.
I won’t forget about the prospect of bowl eligibility, which is the central premise of this matchup. It’s a massive moment, even overshadowing the historic developments and changes on the brink of taking place for this program.
So much is riding on this game that, in a way, makes it harder for the ‘Cats to win. We often see that teams without proper experience don’t live up to the moment, which is a possibility with this group. With the struggles of the past few seasons, many of these players lack experience in big, season-altering games, and that inexperience might catch up to the ‘Cats here. Let’s hope they rise to the occasion and overcome this pressure, but it could undoubtedly hinder Northwestern’s chances in this game if it becomes too burdensome.
The streak lives on
Northwestern’s is 5-5 through 10 games, with the team following a particular pattern in its results. The ‘Cats have alternated losses and wins each week, starting with the Rutgers defeat two-and-a-half months ago. When Northwestern loses, pessimism creeps in, and the season appears doomed. When the team wins, however, the season is reborn, and the ‘Cats play clean, tenacious football. The differences are apparent as night and day.
This week, the 11th matchup of the season, Northwestern is primed for a loss if the pattern continues. If it holds, we’ll be in for a long afternoon, as NU’s defeats this season have primarily been ugly, low-scoring affairs. If so, we might have to wait for the season finale against Illinois to see the verdict on NU’s season and ultimately determine whether or not they will achieve the improbable and become bowl-eligible. However, maybe — just maybe — the Cardiac ‘Cats will show up and break this streak once and for all. We’ll find out on Saturday.