Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, October 9, 6:30 pm CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Purdue
by Jonathan Hodges

The No. 25 Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) escaped their first Big Ten game at Minnesota with a win and come back home to face the Purdue Boilermakers (2-2, 0-0) in a night game that will close out the first half of NU's 2010 regular season.  Purdue, meanwhile, is coming off of a much-needed bye, although they will still be missing their primary offensive skill players who are all lost for the year with knee injuries.

RB Ralph Bolden, who led the Boilermakers with 935 rushing yards last year, was lost to an ACL tear in his knee during the preseason.  In their second game of this season versus Western Illinois, Purdue lost their first team All-Big Ten WR Keith Smith to a season-ending knee injury.  Then in their last game against Toledo, they lost starting QB Robert Marve to yet another knee injury; Marve was a key transfer from Miami (FL) who was supposed to fill the void left by the graduation of Joey Elliot.

Needless to say, losing the three primary offensive skill position players is a huge loss, and that from a unit that wasn't producing up to expectations through their first two games.  Purdue averaged 21.5 points per game through their first two games (against Notre Dame and the aforementioned FCS member Western Illinois), and although they've averaged 22.0 points per game in the next two, they didn't look great in either and are coming off of a loss to MAC member Toledo.

The one potential saving grace for the Boilermakers is their defense; although they are a middle-of-the-road 51st nationally in scoring defense (allowing 22.0 points per game), they are an impressive 11th nationally in sacks (averaging 3 per game) and 14th in TFLs (averaging 7.75 per game).  That is mostly thanks to the one-man wrecking crew that is first team All-Big Ten senior DE Ryan Kerrigan, who easily leads his team in tackles (34, next closest has 23), sacks (4.5), and forced fumbles (3).  Although Purdue has a lot of talent up front on defense, their secondary is relatively young and untested.

This game is critical for both teams.  Northwestern is looking for its first 6-0 start since 1962, while Purdue is looking to right the ship to try and make what would be a near miracle run to a bowl berth (they do have remaining win-able games vs. Minnesota, at Illinois, and vs. Indiana).  The 'Cats will be big favorites in this one, but in Big Ten play anything can and does happen, as demonstrated by NU's troubles at Minnesota last week before pulling off the comeback win.  Remember that this Purdue squad did beat last year's eventual Rose Bowl champion OSU thanks to generating 5 turnovers, and many expected this to be a bowl squad going into this season.

Expect a physical matchup on Saturday night between these two squads as the Purdue defensive front will do anything they can to stop the NU offense while the Boilermaker offense has almost no choice but to pound the ball with their remaining running backs.  The 'Cats will look to correct the errors they've been making the past two games as QB Dan Persa looks to continue his very efficient under-the-radar performance as NU's best offensive weapon.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 10.5.

Who Should Win

The Wildcats.  Purdue didn't look great on offense to start the year, then they lost even more offensive weapons, now leaving a redshirt freshman QB who has a completion rate of just 51.2% to run the show.  Yes, the Purdue defensive front is strong, but the secondary is questionable and that plays perfectly into NU's offensive hands.  As long as Northwestern can minimize mistakes, they should win this one relatively comfortably, and if the 'Cats can force mistakes from Purdue and take advantage of them, this could tip far in NU's favor.

Upset Factor

The problem is that Northwestern has been the team making errors over the past two weeks: turnovers, lots of penalties, and special teams gaffes.  Purdue's defense is legitimate and quite possibly the best that NU has faced so far.  The Boilermakers have an upset or two in them despite losing that talent on offense and they are coming off of a bye where they had plenty of time to scheme for this game.  QB Rob Henry has wheels (he's averaging 5.4 yards per carry and is second on the team in rushing so far) and they have some respectable running backs to throw out there, and NU showed it was a bit vulnerable to the run last week (giving up 5.4 yards per carry to Minnesota's DeLeon Eskridge).  A strong defensive performance plus a strong running game is definitely the recipe Purdue is looking for in this one to pull off the upset.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Purdue Defense

This will be the unit matchup of the game.  The Wildcats' offense has been formidable this year, putting up 433.0 yards per game (good for 31st nationally), with 277.8 of those through the air (23rd nationally).  QB Dan Persa leads the way as he ranks 3rd nationally in passing efficiency (184.61) and 6th nationally in total offense (325.8 yards per game).  Persa has established himself as a very solid leader (5-0 record) and accurate passer (his 79.4% completion rate leads the nation).

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Purdue defense is tough, particularly up front.  They get things done in the backfield, ranking in the top 15 nationally both in sacks and TFLs.  Kerrigan is their leader up front, but he'll be flanked by three younger but talented guys, including the large sophomore Kawaan Short, who is second on the team with 5.5 TFLs. 

The linebacking unit is not a pushover, led by 6th year senior (due to injury) Jason Werner, who has been rather good this season against the pass, with 1 INT and 3 pass break-ups.  He'll have the assistance of Joe Holland, a junior who ranked second on the team last year in tackles, and sophomore Dwayne Beckford, who was a tackling machine in high school and is off to a decent start with 21 stops so far this year.

Finally, the secondary, where all four starters from last year had to be replaced.  Starting are two juniors, a sophomore, and a true freshman, who have admittedly taken their lumps so far (93rd ranked pass efficiency defense in the country), but aren't giving up a ton of yards through the air (just 201.5 yards per game, good for 58th nationally).  Look for the 'Cats to attack through the air early and often (as they like to do), but the key will be avoiding the pass rush from that strong defensive front.

It will be interesting to see how Northwestern uses its running game, which hasn't found any flow so far outside of Persa's runs, since he leads the team with 271 net rushing yards (330 with sacks removed).  This week's depth chart lists Jacob Schmidt as the starting RB, followed by Mike Trumpy (who has the highest yards per carry of all NU RBs at 3.7), then Stephen Simmons.  Look out for true freshman Adonis Smith to also be given some carries after he saw his redshirt burned last week with two carries for 1 yard to get his feet wet.

But no matter how NU tries to utilize its run game, their success will be tied to their performance through the air, and there is little doubt that Persa will be successful in this realm.  It is important to note, though that Purdue has the second toughest defense NU has faced (in total yards and scoring), and that with notably tougher competition than the best statistical defense that NU faced (Central Michigan).

The biggest vulnerability for the 'Cats is at the line of scrimmage (NU ranks 90th in tackles for loss allowed and 87th in sacks allowed), and Purdue knows that is their chance to win, so look for them to pin their ears back and come after the ball carrier.  Meanwhile, NU's success will be determined by their ability to hold back the rush just enough or to get the ball out early enough to counter the rush.  Persa is indeed fleet of foot and NU has shown the ability to move the ball well on offense so far this season in pretty much every situation.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Purdue Offense

One would think that the 'Cats shouldn't have much trouble here considering what the Purdue infirmary looks like, but don't be surprised to see the Boilermakers come out with some new offensive wrinkles to take advantage of their remaining offensive strengths.  QB Rob Henry may not be that accurate (his aforementioned 51.2% completion rate), but he can run (167 net yards in limited time so far this year).  They have some remaining RB options as well, led by senior Dan Dierking, who is first on Purdue in rushing with 205 yards this year (at 5.4 yards per carry), along with the speedy but dinged-up Al-Terek McBurse who has gained 79 yards this year on just 9 carries.

The Purdue offensive line returns two starters, including formidable 358 lb. RG Ken Plue, who have done a decent job so far this year paving the way for 4.8 yards per carry and allowing a respectable average of 2 sacks per game (60th nationally).  Look for them to focus on run blocking as that is where the most reliable offensive playmakers come, and the Boilermakers are already averaging 188.0 yards per game on the ground, good for 36th nationally.

The remaining receivers, after the loss of Kevin Smith, aren't that bad of a group, although they'll lack an explosive presence, especially since converted QB Justin Siller also won't be available due to injury.  Seniors Kyle Adams (a tight end) and Cortez Smith lead the unit as they've accounted for 37.5% of Purdue's receptions (and that was with Smith grabbing 18 passes in the first two games).  The Wildcats' secondary must also be wary of senior TE Jeff Lindsay and speedy true freshman O.J. Ross, who already has a touchdown in his young collegiate career.

The Wildcats have looked weak at times against the run and it will be vital for NU to shut down this part of the Purdue offense.  NU is a respectable 36th in rushing defense nationally, and is allowing 4.0 yards per carry, but are vulnerable as demonstrated by Minnesota's long drive that spanned parts of the third and fourth quarter last week.  There's little doubt that the Boilermakers will give this type of running a go, mixed in with some deceptive plays involving their running quarterback.

Northwestern needs to get production from the four defensive linemen; Vince Browne has been very solid so far but the defensive tackles have been spotty.  Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant have both come up with some big plays so far, but are hardly dominating the middle on a consistent basis.  Finally, the other DE spot, manned by either Quentin Williams or Kevin Watt, needs to generate some production in order to balance out Browne.  The production here is key, because if the speedy Purdue runners can get into the open, that could spell trouble for NU.

The NU linebacking corps has been alright so far considering their experience and talent, but they have room for improvement - particularly against the run.  Quentin Davie has a nice stat line, and Nate Williams is quietly second on the team in tackles, but NU needs to plug those holes in the middle of the field to be successful against Purdue.

Finally, the secondary remains the weakest part of NU's defense (and, possibly, entire team), with the 'Cats giving up 250.2 yards per game through the air (98th nationally).  The one thing that Northwestern cannot afford is to Purdue to get a passing game going; instead, the 'Cats' secondary must take advantage of errors that are bound to come from Purdue's freshman QB.

Despite losing their top three skill position players, Purdue still has a threatening ground game, and Northwestern must put together a solid effort to contain it.  If they can do that and force some mistakes from Purdue's young QB, they should be able to put the Wildcats in position for a win.

What to Look for: Special Teams

The 'Cats have had their issues on special teams, including 4 XPs that were not converted (2 misses, 1 blocked, 1 not attempted due to a bad hold), as well as a blocked FG and another 2 that were missed.  Purdue's kicking game, meanwhile, has been relatively strong thanks to the leg of Carson Wiggs, who has hit all 10 XPs and is 5-of-7 on FGs.  It is important to note that Wiggs has a crazy range, hitting both a 55 and a 59 yarder last year.

Northwestern should be able to pick up some hidden yardage in the punting game, though, as the 'Cats rank 23rd nationally in net punting at 39.0 net yards per punt, while Purdue is 90th at 34.0 net yards per punt.  And if you think Northwestern's 77th ranked punt return average (7.3 yards per punt return) is bad, you haven't seen Purdue who ranks next-to-last (119th) with a 1.4 yard average.

Finally, despite having some speedy players, Purdue ranks 109th in kickoff returns (18.0 yards per return).  NU isn't a whole lot better (75th at 20.9 yards per return), although the kickoff return yardage allowed numbers are skewed much in NU's favor (the 'Cats rank 33rd at 19.8 yards per return while Purdue is again near the bottom at 115th with 27.7 yards per return allowed).

If Northwestern can use all of this hidden yardage in the kicking game in their favor, it should put both the NU offense and defense in a better starting position, which should help keep the placekicking game out of this (the one area of special teams where Purdue has an edge).

Miscellaneous Notes


In the last two meetings between these two teams, Northwestern has taken the ball away 11 times (4 interceptions and 7 fumble recoveries) and scored 48 points off of those turnovers.  NU is +8 in turnover margin through those two games.


Northwestern will be playing its first night game since the 2007 season against the very team that NU faced for the first night game in Big Ten conference history (on October 5, 1935 at what was then called Dyche Stadium).  Attendance has experienced a nice boost in NU's two home games so far this year and should be approaching the 40,000 range for this game, which would mark the highest attendance since the 2008 sellout against Ohio State.

History vs. Purdue

After being designated "rivals" to face each other every season under the current Big Ten scheduling format, 2011 will mark an end to this every-season contest as the teams move to opposite divisions and fall off of each others' schedules for at least the next 2 years.  The 'Cats have faced Purdue every season since 1995, and although NU wasn't able to win between 1997 and 2003, the 'Cats have a 4-2 record against Purdue since 2004.

Red Zone Offenses

Both teams have had their share of offensive issues in the red zone this season.  NU has scored on 78% of trips to the red zone (23) this year and TDs on 57% of its trips, while Purdue has scored on 75% of its trips (12) with TDs just 42% of the time.  The only saving grace is that both teams are holding opponents to lower percentages in most of those categories (the only with more is Purdue's red zone TD defense, which has allowed a 53% rate).

Third Down Conversions

Northwestern ranks near the top both offensively (converting 51.4% of its third downs, 14th nationally) and defensively (allowing a 30.8% conversion rate, 21st nationally).  Meanwhile, Purdue is mediocre on offense (63rd nationally at 40.3%) and not so great on defense (103rd at 46.3%), likely attributed to their vulnerable secondary.  It is important to note that of the teams converting more that 45% of their third downs on offense (32 teams), just one has a losing record and 11 teams are unbeaten (including NU, of course).

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, out), SB Drake Dunsmore (leg, probable).

The Wildcats did indeed get safeties Jared Carpenter and David Arnold back for Minnesota and both participated in the game (combining for 8 tackles).  Unfortunately, Dunsmore did go out with a leg injury, but after evaluation over the weekend he is reportedly probable to return this week (note that he did have a rib removed in the offseason to correct a potential blood clotting issue, so this is relatively small change for him).  Northwestern has continued its good fortunes on the injury front with the halfway point of the season (and a bye week) clearly in sight.  As always, look out for injury updates later in the week.


QB Robert Marve (knee, out for season), RB Ralph Bolden (knee, out for season), WR Keith Smith (knee, out for season), WR Justin Siller (ankle, out), RB Al-Terek McBurse (toe, questionable), DT Brandon Taylor (leg, questionable).

To say that the Boilermakers have been stung by the injury bug would be an understatement, as they have lost their top three offensive skill position players (and possibly the fourth in Siller).  This has forced a redshirt freshman into full time duty at QB, and bumped everyone up on the WR corps.  Meanwhile, the RBs are managing despite the fact that the top three currently on the depth chart have all been on the injury report sometime this season (starter Dan Dierking has appeared in all 4 games in spite of a rib injury while third string Keith Carlos had a foot injury earlier in the year).  While the rest of the team is in relatively healthy shape, the offensive skill positions has been decimated.


Northwestern 27, Purdue 16

Look out for a lower scoring matchup here as NU faces a relatively tough defense while Purdue will try to eke out a win with that aforementioned defense plus a running game that will constitute most of their offensive production.  But, Northwestern should also be able to correct most of its errors from the past 2 weeks (turnovers and penalties), and look out for the 'Cats to get onto the positive side of the turnover margin and use all of that to their advantage as they work towards a solid win at home.

Despite the temptation to pencil in a win here, Northwestern knows how tough Big Ten conference games are and the fact that Purdue will play them tough.  Specifically look at the play in the trenches when either team has the ball as that will be where this game will be decided.  There will be a great atmosphere on Saturday night, and hopefully that will be a contributing factor towards a Wildcat victory.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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