Each of the past two seasons, Northwestern football has gotten off to slow starts to begin the season. 2016’s 0-2 start with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State was ugly, while last season began with an uninspiring victory over Nevada at Ryan Field before a blowout loss to Duke in week two.
This year, the ‘Cats can’t afford another slow start, as they’ll open the season with a road game––a Big Ten showdown with Purdue. While it would be foolish to label a season over after one game, Northwestern’s Big Ten West title aspirations would take a massive hit if they are unable to find a way to win week one.
Second-year head coach Jeff Brohm has reinvigorated a Purdue program that won just 9 games over the 4 years prior to Brohm taking the job last winter. The Boilermakers exceeded expectations in year 1 of the Brohm era, earning bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2012 season and capping off the campaign with a win in the Foster Farms Bowl over Arizona. Despite being known as an offensive guru, Brohm helped orchestrate one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in the country, improving a unit that had conceded over 38 points per game in 2016 (117th in FBS) to a much stingier one that ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense at 20.5 points allowed per game in 2017.
Despite significant attrition, especially on the defensive side of the ball, excitement is still high in West Lafayette. Like Northwestern, Purdue is in the process of transitioning to a brand-new football practice facility, a $65 million project that has helped the Boilermakers get off to a hot start on the 2019 recruiting trail. And while some may project this season to be a transition year for the Boilermakers, it would seem unwise to bet against a well-coached team with experience at the quarterback position.
Purdue Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
While Northwestern brings back a ton of production on the defensive side of the ball, Purdue has the personnel and creative play-calling that could pose some problems for the Wildcats. At the skill positions, the Boilermakers return their top four ballcarriers and four of their top six pass-catchers from a season ago. That includes sophomore receiver Jared Sparks, who torched the Wildcat secondary for 130 yards on 11 catches last November. It’s an offense built on depth and versatility, with plenty of adaptable personnel to attack the weaknesses of defenses. Combine that skill depth with an offensive line unit that returns four starters and adds Western Kentucky grad transfer Dennis Edwards to the fray, and it appears that the Boilermakers have the pieces in place to be one of the most dynamic offenses in the Big Ten.
At quarterback, Purdue has no clear starter, but do boast a pair of signal-callers with significant experience. Junior Elijah Sindelar should be seen as the favorite for the starting job, a 6’4” gunslinger with a cannon arm who threw for 376 yards against the ‘Cats last season. Sindelar drew headlines this offseason after it was revealed he played on a torn ACL in the Boilermakers’ bowl victory, throwing for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Sindelar split time last season with David Blough, who should also factor in the QB competition. The senior is a better runner than Sindelar and is one of the team’s leaders.
In last season’s meeting, Northwestern was able to hold Purdue to just 13 points despite Sindelar’s big day. The Wildcat front seven entirely shut down Purdue’s running game, a performance I expect the ‘Cats to replicate in this year’s game. They forced Purdue to do all their damage through the air and limited big plays.
Where I think Purdue has the best chance to exploit this stout Northwestern unit is through explosive plays in the passing game. Brohm is known for diagramming lots of trick plays and deep passes––with an entire offseason to prepare, I’d expect Brohm and the Boilermakers to have several tricks up their sleeve. This should concern a Northwestern team which replaces both its safeties from last season and will perhaps be a bit over-anxious to make the big play in the season opener. Defending trick plays requires immense discipline, and that may be the biggest key of the game for this Northwestern defense.
Purdue Defense vs Northwestern Offense
So much of this matchup depends upon Clayton Thorson’s availability for Northwestern. All eyes are on the senior quarterback and his surgically-repaired right knee, with his availability for the season opener unclear.
Whoever lines up under center for the Wildcats will have opportunities to test an inexperienced Purdue defense that loses eight of its top 10 tacklers from last season. The defensive unit that led the Boilermakers last season will likely take a step back this season, putting more pressure on the offense to score points. Where Purdue will be especially young is at linebacker and in the secondary, losing two starting corners and their four best linebackers.
With Thorson available, Northwestern would be able to run and pass the ball effectively and be very difficult for a young defense to stop. Junior receiver Bennett Skowronek feasted on the Purdue secondary last season for seven catches and 117 yards, and is a matchup nightmare for the Boilermakers. However, if Northwestern is forced to roll with one of its backup quarterbacks, the game plan changes entirely. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall would likely go with a much more conservative offensive strategy, feeding sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin a steady diet of carries. Purdue could load the box to shut down the Northwestern running game, forcing whoever the ‘Cats trot out at quarterback to beat them through the air.
If Northwestern can consistently run the ball and move the chains on the ground, they should be in excellent position to win this game. Forcing Thorson or a backup to beat Purdue through the air seems like the best game plan for Boilermaker defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
In the kicking game, Purdue has a pair of reliable kickers duking it out for the starting spot. Baylor transfer Spencer Evans was 16/17 on PATs and 8/11 on field goals (perfect inside 40 yards) last season in his first season in West Lafayette, while JD Dillinger made all 19 of his extra points and nine of his 13 field goal attempts. Dillinger was also perfect inside 40 yards. It appears unlikely that the duo will split time this year, with Evans seemingly having the inside track to the starting job because Dillinger has the ability to redshirt a season.
Joe Schopper enters his 4th and final year as the starting punter for the Boilermakers after averaging more than 40 yards per punt last season.
Playing in front of what should be a raucous crowd on a Thursday night, Purdue stands as a stiff season-opening test for Northwestern. If Thorson is healthy and sharp, the Wildcats should be able to claim a season-opening victory. However, they have a very slim margin for error and can’t afford another slow start to the season if they want to take down a team as well-coached and offensively gifted team as Purdue on their home field.