Game Preview


Purdue at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Oct. 18.  11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Purdue
by Jonathan Hodges


This Saturday's game at Ryan Field features two teams looking for a bit of a rebound as Northwestern (5-1, 1-1), coming off of its first loss in 2008, faces off against reeling Purdue (2-4, 0-2).  The 'Cats are looking to respond to a loss against MSU where they put themselves into a 17 point hole early and never got out, while the Boilermakers are looking for some offensive life after scoring 9 combined points in their past 2 games (admittedly against Big Ten powers Penn State and Ohio State).  While both teams have been known for their offensive attacks this decade, both squads feature defenses that have performed admirably this year; NU's defense ranks near the top nationally in points allowed, sacks, and tackles for loss, while Purdue's has held the vaunted Penn State and Ohio State attacks to 20 and 16 yards, respectively, in consecutive weeks.  The offenses have been a bit of a disappointment this year, with both teams being led by senior QBs (Bacher at NU and Painter at Purdue) who have put up huge numbers in their collegiate careers and were surrounded by enough talent to make things happen; unfortunately things haven't gone extremely well for either of them - and both have thrown more interceptions than TDs this season.

For Northwestern, this game is vital to start back the momentum after the loss to the Spartans, as the 'Cats must establish themselves in the middle pack of the Big Ten.  Meanwhile, Purdue is trying to right the ship after 3 consecutive losses as it is fighting for a chance to reach bowl eligibility.  Both teams have aspects of their game to correct and they both know that if they can execute their game plan, then the game is theirs for the taking.  For NU, most of those mistakes were in special teams - particularly on kickoffs (coverage and returns); while Purdue's offense has had trouble getting things going, even resorting to a backup QB at the end of the PSU game.  Purdue is a dangerous team, though, with all 4 of their losses coming to tough opponents (Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State) as they have played one of the toughest schedules in the nation so far.  Northwestern knows not to take any game for granted and will have to prepare and execute well in order to put themselves in a position to win this game.

Last year in West Lafayette, Northwestern fought to a 17-14 fourth quarter lead before the offense sputtered and the defense's wheels came off as they allowed RB Taylor to run wild and Purdue came away with a 35-17 win.  It was just one of multiple fourth quarter meltdowns for the 'Cats, which is something NU has obviously worked to correct this season, with the defense making its strongest stands in the final periods this year.  Although the score ended up looking like a lopsided win, it was a closely contested game through 3 quarters, and one should also expect to see a close matchup in this year's tilt.

Northwestern by 3.5.

Who Should Win: Northwestern, mostly because of a strong defense and a Purdue offense that is having troubles.  Also, after facing two straight opponents who love to run the ball and use traditional offensive sets, Purdue's offense brings in a spread attack that features the pass - which is something the NU defense has had better luck with this season.

Upset Factor: On the flipside, NU's offense hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire and the Purdue defense has performed rather well against Penn State's high octane attack and OSU's talented squad, and actually held Ohio State without an offensive touchdown.  If this game turns into a defensive slugfest (it very well may), then it's anyone's game.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Purdue Defense: The Wildcats STILL need to get the offense humming like it should, given the talent and experience at the skill positions coupled with the coming of age of the OL, who are averaging just half a sack allowed per game this year.  Sutton is also quitely having a nice year, averaging just over 100 yards per game on the ground despite missing the final half of the Ohio game, as well as another 30 yards per game through the air.  CJ Bacher, meanwhile, is having trouble with interceptions, again, and needs another bounce-back game like he had against Iowa.  The receivers have been limiting drops after a poor start to the year, and it appears as though the favorite targets have been set, with Lane and Peterman getting the ball per usual but senior Ward stepping up to be a go-to guy for CJ.  As Fitz hinted at in the Monday press conference, the designed QB run is a vital component to the spread offense, and CJ is a better runner than many give him credit for.  NU's only scoring drive of the first half against MSU featured multiple CJ runs (including one for a TD), and Bacher's longest run of the day exceeded Ringer's longest run.  So, hopefully the message has been driven home for NU and its coaching staff - run CJ at least a handful of times during the game, if anything to keep the defense honest.  Purdue's defense, while giving up a whopping yards per game total (just over 400 yards/game), is doing what it takes to keep teams out of the end zone, allowing only 23.5 points/game (despite facing some potent offensive attacks).  They are led by senior LB Heygood, who is averaging over 9 tackles/game, while NU must also look out for two defensive ends Kerrigan and Baker, who have combined for 11.5 TFLs this year and 4 sacks.  In the defensive backfield, senior Williams provides a presence and is second on the team in tackles.  The things that the Purdue defense does not do well, though are taking the ball away (only 4 INTs and 2 fumble recoveries on the year) and stopping the run (the Boilermakers are giving up over 184 yards/game on the ground).  The 'Cats must take advantage by ensuring ball security and running the ball with Sutton early and often.  Establishing a solid running game should open some things up in the passing attack, and CJ must be on target to take advantage of such opportunities.  Don't expect a breakout performance from the NU offense, though, given Purdue's abilities to keep opponents off the scoreboard.

Northwestern Defense/Purdue Offense: Purdue's offense has expereinced a similar disappointment this year, with senior Painter's throws going off target on many occasions, despite over 10,000 passing yards in his collegiate career.  The offense is also apparently missing the contributions of RB Taylor, who was lost to an injury in the preseason (it was Taylor who ran all over NU in the final quarter of last year's contest).  But, again, this unit is capable of much better than what they've shown the past few games, and Northwestern must execute on defense, getting pressure up front and playing solid coverage to keep the Boilers at bay.  Senior RB Sheets has hurt NU in the past and will look to add to his solid numbers so far this year, as he has averaged 94 yards/game and 5.0 yards/carry with 8 TDs (although he is basically the only running threat on Purdue's roster at this point).  The receiving corps is experienced but hasn't produced numbers many expected, with senior Greg Orton leading the team in receptions, senior Tardy finally living up to some of his expectations, and QB convert Smith making some contributions as well.  Finally, the Purdue OL is performing well for a team that throws the ball so much, giving up 10 sacks on the year (1.7/game).  The Wildcats must get pressure up front starting with the DL, which they have been doing well so far this season, and rattle Painter while containing the running game.  This is essential to prevent Purdue from having plenty of time for its receivers to roam free in the secondary.  Painter has also thrown some INTs this year, and the secondary should take the opportunity to gather some much-needed turnovers.  Finally, NU must contain the running game as it did against MSU - the key will be, again, pressure up front and the LBs taking care of business.  The Wildcats' D was getting burned by Iowa's Greene before knocking him out of the game, but them responded by bottling up Ringer for the most part, forcing his yards per carry under 4.

Special Teams: Given the relative strong performance of both teams' defenses so far this year and the disappointing showing from their offenses, it very well may come down to special teams to determine the winner of this game.  The 'Cats saw their chances against MSU fall away mostly due to special teams - while NU's kicking game allowed MSU very good field position multiple times, NU was locked in its own end to start every drive during the game.  Before that game, though, NU's kick coverage teams had been doing an excellent job and Demos had been booting kicks and punts pretty far.  NU needs Demos to return to form on kickoffs and the coverage teams to take care of business by hussling down the field and making the tackles.  The 'Cats are much better than they showed last week, and there is no doubt Fitz will put the emphasis on improving in this area during practice.  Regarding the FG kicking game, Villarreal had a quiet comeback, hitting both FGs and both XPs on the day to make him 14/15 for XPs and 11/13 for FGs on the year - not too bad.  Meanwhile, Purdue has had well-documented issues in their kicking game, with their primary kicker (Summers) going 14/15 on XPs but an abysmal 5/10 on FG attempts.  The Boilers do have a long kick specialist (Wiggs) who is 1/3 on FGs longer than 50 yards (the only distance he's attempted).  In terms of kicks returns and coverage teams, Purdue is in the 50's in terms of national ranking for kickoff returns, kickoff return coverage, and punt returns.  The one area they've had issues in, though is punt return coverage, where they are allowing 20.63 yards/return with 2 TDs against them (one 87 yard punt return by Oregon and a blocked punt that was returned for a TD by OSU).  So, while NU had its share of special teams gaffes against MSU, Purdue has been having them all year long.  The 'Cats must take advantage of any opportunities here to make something happen becuase starting every drive from deep in their own end doesn't help swing the tide, as learned last week.

- Northwestern's 2-deep featured only one significant change with Matthews taking over kickoff return duties from McManis, with Conteh still listed as the other return man.  Matthews has done a respectable job this year and, most importantly, hasn't fumbled, while helping to force 2 fumbles against Iowa on coverage teams.  Also of note, RT Mattes played in the last game but is listed as the backup to Taylor, with redshirt freshman Bartels retaining his RG duties.  The trio of Netter, Kennedy, and Burkett seem to be firmly entrenched as the starting LT, LG, and C, respectively.
- Attendance: After a strong showing on a "Purple Haze" Saturday against MSU, it will be interesting to see how the crowd looks against Purdue, which is homecoming, but has been relegated to an 11AM start (times for homecoming games are announced prior to the season, so this has been set for some time).  The early start usually means less student support, and the disappointing result from last week may keep some fans away - although a 5-1 record is still very strong and the possibility of a win should bring fans to the game.  With the NUMB alumni band performing and many NU alums in attendance, it should be a fun college football atmosphere.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), RB Simmons (questionable, ankle).

Purdue: RB Taylor (out for season, knee), TE Adams (questionable, knee), LB Werner (questionable, back), S Duong (questionable, knee).

Northwestern has once again escaped without significant injury and its roster is looking very good at this point in the season (half way through).  The only significant loss during the year was CB Vaughn, who started the year as a starter, although the redshirt freshman Mabin has stepped up nicely (although he has been tested by teams throwing in his direction quite often).  Simmons once again didn't see playing time against MSU, but Fitz reported that he was doing better during the prior week of practice, so don't be surprised to see him back in on special teams if he can get back to full health.  And good news is that McNaul, Mafuli, and Jeske were all spotted in full pads on Saturday and would possibly be available, although none of them appear on the 2-deep and therefore wouldn't be in big impact roles.

For the Boilermakers, the most significant question marks are their TE Adams and LB Werner, who have missed some time recently with injuries, including the most recent game against OSU.  Werner would be the most significant loss here, although they did manage to hold OSU to no offensive touchdowns without him.  Overall, though, Purdue is fielding a rather healthy team as well.

Prediction: Northwestern 27 - Purdue 19

I expect another relatively low scoring affair (at least for two teams that are known for running the spread offense), with both offenses struggling and the defenses doing a respectable to good job, and for the 'Cats to respond and come out a winner that would give NU its 6th win and bowl eligibility.  Although Northwestern has the edge in some areas, this should be a close game that will be controlled by the defenses, for the most part.  The key will be mistakes (special teams plays leading to field position and turnovers) and capitalizing on those miscues.  Expect NU to shore up its special teams after a poor showing last week and working to make things happen in the turnover department - Purdue has had a relatively large number of turnovers, and while NU came up empty last week expect the D to lay some hard hits and go after the ball in the air.  On offense, Sutton should have a good day and his ability to rip off some long runs and open things up for the passing game will be key; if NU can establish a lead, then using him to control the tempo will also be vital.  A lot is on the line for both teams, and one should expect a hard-hitting Big Ten matchup that will set the tone for the second half of the year on both sides.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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