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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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
RB Tyrell Sutton: (ankle sprain) listed as the
starter and is expected to start and get significant playing time this
Out for the Season: Brewer
(WR), Smith (S), Diaz (OL), Hamlett (DB).
Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Purdue
jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.