Game Preview


Northwestern at Purdue
Ross-Ade Stadium
Saturday, Oct. 27.  Time: 11:00 am CDT

TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Purdue
by Jonathan Hodges


The Northwestern Wildcats (5-3, 2-2) head into West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers (6-2, 2-2) in Purdue's homecoming matchup as both teams begin the second half of their Big Ten conference slates for 2007.  NU is looking to extend its current winning streak to 4 games for the first time since the 1996 Big Ten championship season and grab that 6th with for bowl eligibility.  Meanwhile, Purdue is looking to climb back up the conference ladder and show that it belongs in one of the higher tier bowl games come season end.  Last year, the Boilermakers beat NU in Evanston, but NU has won 2 of the last 3 meetings in this "rivalry" game (NU and Purdue play annually in the current Big Ten schedule rotation as one of their "protected" games that do not move off of the schedule).

Both teams have prolific offensive attacks: NU ranks 1st in the Big Ten in both total offense and passing offense, while Purdue ranks 2nd in passing offense and 3rd in total offense (in the Big Ten), and both passing attacks rank within the top 15 nationally in terms of yards.  Both have solid QBs: Purdue's Curtis Painter and NU's CJ Bacher.  But unlike in recent years, Purdue's defense has seemingly turned things around and is no longer at the bottom of the pack along with the Wildcats' D - now at 8th in the conference in total defense and 6th in scoring defense (NU is 10th in both categories within the conference).

On a glance, the game may have the look of a shootout, but that will only transpire if NU can be successful against Purdue's defense, which has a slew of contributors.  One factor in NU's offensive success may be the contributions of Tyrell Sutton, who is returning from his high ankle sprain, and after seeing the field as a decoy on three plays against Eastern Michigan last Friday, he will reportedly see the starting lineup, although still splitting time with Omar Conteh (and Brandon Roberson).  Although Northwestern is sporting a "run and shoot" style of offense that is focused primarily on the passing game, the running back can still have a big effect on the game as the middle screen play and the occasional run are mixed into the game plan.

Defensively, Northwestern must improve on its past performances if it wants to have a shot at winning this game.  Purdue's QB and receivers must be salivating at what they've seen from NU against Minnesota, Duke, and Ohio State as the quarterbacks have had forever and a day to throw with little if any pressure, while the receivers find plenty of holes in NU's traditionally soft defense to catch and run.  The Wildcats picked up 4 turnovers (3 inside their own 10 yard line) against EMU, and the 'Cats must continue to generate turnovers if they are to have a shot in this game as shutting down Purdue's offense won't happen (at least at the hands of this year's NU defense).

Finally, special teams: NU MUST get better kickoff coverage.  Purdue ranks 2nd nationally in kickoff returns averaging over 28 yds/return, meanwhile NU is 117th in kickoff return defense (allowing 26.8 return yds/kickoff), although the 'Cats haven't given up a kickoff return TD.  Northwestern's defense will need all the help it can get, and putting Purdue in an unfavorable field position would be a good start.  Look for Fitz to utilize more starters on the kick coverage unit (mostly because he has no choice) - it risks injury (see Roach's season ending broken leg last year against MSU on punt coverage - which was actually called back thanks to holding against MSU), but hopefully it means keeping the opponent on their side of the field.

Before the season, this looked like the 3rd toughest game for Northwestern, and at this point it still appears to hold that title (although games against Indiana and Illinois now look much tougher than they did then).  It is a win-able game for the Wildcats, and although it would be an upset on the road, it's not a position that is all that unfamiliar for NU (see the win over MSU a few weeks back to start off the current 3 game winning streak).  Northwestern has the ability to win any of its final 4 games, but winning all of them is a huge stretch at this point (mostly thanks to the defensive issues) - but the first test comes this Saturday.

Line: Purdue by 13.

Who Should Win:  Purdue should win this game - they're at home, they have a much better defense, and they looked back to form in last week's home win over Iowa.  While the offenses are basically a wash in terms of total yards, the scoring offense tilts heavily in favor of the Boilermakers ( 35.75 ppg, 1st in conference, 22nd nationally) while NU hasn't managed to translate those yards into points (27.88 ppg, 9th in conference, 59th nationally).

Upset Factor:   The Wildcats have beaten Purdue 2 of the last 3 tries, and now that the NU offense has found its stride, who knows what will happen.  In order to stay in the game and have a shot at winning, the offense must be in sync and put points up on the board after racking up those yards (preferably TDs).  The X-factor will be Sutton - who knows what impact he will have on the game (a lot depends on how much he is played).  Also, the defense must put in some effort and at least come up with some turnovers (stopping the Purdue offense would be asking a lot out of this unit) which could give NU some swing points and momentum.  If this game turns into a shootout, the winner is anyone's guess.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Purdue Defense: This will be the key battle of the day: the much improved Purdue D facing NU's new pass-first high-octane offense.  If Northwestern can move the ball AND score, then here comes the shootout.  Sustaining drives will be vital - therefore, Northwestern must actually complete those middle screen passes, which act as a "run" play with blockers out of a pass-heavy attack (NU has had many issues completing these passes this season).  Also, it is key to keep the pressure away from CJ Bacher; the OL has performed well in the past few weeks but allowed a couple of sacks and hurries against EMU - and given that the teams with the most success against the NU offense put a ton of pressure on the QB (OSU, Michigan in the 4th quarter, and Duke), look for blitzing from Purdue.

Northwestern Defense/Purdue Offense: The Northwestern defense isn't very good, and the stats bear that out.  Now they must face another top-flight offense, and things don't look pretty.  No doubt Purdue will rack up a ton of yards against the NU D.  Basically, the only hope the Wildcat defense has in keeping NU close is grabbing turnovers (mostly by putting pressure on the QB), something that started to get going last week against EMU.  But even that is asking for a lot out of a unit that only has 6 sacks on the year and ranks 94th in turnovers gained on the year.  Of course if the NU defense is waiting to put things together - this would be the week to finish that off.  Purdue has a lot of offensive weapons, the aforementioned QB Curtis Painter, veteran WR Dorien Bryant, plus 2 more receivers by the names of Orton and Keller who will also get the ball a lot.  Running backs Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor will also contribute another dimension to the offense.

Special Teams: Purdue's kick return unit is ranked 2nd nationally, while NU's kick coverage is 117th nationally - this could spell big problems.  Look for lineup changes on NU's side to address this issue.  NU's kicker Amado Villarreal got back on track last week going 2/2 on FGs and 2/2 on XPs, and look for him to be a factor in the game if NU's offense can't find the end zone.

- Northwestern's offense continues to impress, now ranked 19th nationally in total offense, 6th in passing offense, and 11th in time of possession at 32:13/game.
- NU's defense has been bad, but statistically has moved out of the basement: NU is 83rd in total defense, 81st in scoring defense, 72nd in rushing defense, but 99th in pass efficiency defense.
- The turnovers have started to fall in NU's favor during the current 3 game winning streak, as NU's turnover margin now stands at - 0.25.
- The 'Cats haven't been able to put any pressure on the opposing QB: NU ranks 116th nationally in sacks (0.75/game) and is 105th in tackles for a loss.
- NU is once again playing disciplined football, ranking 13th nationally in fewest penalties per game (although the 'Cats fall in at 35th nationally in fewest penalty yards/game).
- Adam Kadela continues to be a tackling machine (at 10.25/game), second in the conference only to Illinois' J Leman.

Injury Report:
RB Tyrell Sutton: (ankle sprain) listed as the starter and is expected to start and get significant playing time this week.
Out for the Season: Brewer (WR), Smith (S), Diaz (OL), Hamlett (DB).

Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Purdue 41

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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