5 Things to watch in NU vs. Pur

By Ryan Choe

The ‘Cats overcame a first-half deficit against Nebraska last weekend to remain undefeated. This week, they face Purdue, a team coming off a bye week after its week three opponent, Wisconsin, canceled the matchup due to the Badgers’ COVID-19 situation. Here are five key things to watch for this weekend.

1. Defensive back Greg Newsome II and the secondary

Cornerback Greg Newsome II played his first full game against Nebraska after missing week one and playing limited snaps in week two. The junior defensive back had a pair of controversial penalties called on him against Nebraska, although the defense stepped up immediately after both flags. Despite some struggles in his first game of the season, he is still arguably the best defender in the ‘Cats’ secondary (although senior JR Pace and redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph have built strong cases for themselves so far this season).

Newsome, along with the entire secondary, will have the task of containing Purdue’s formidable air attack this weekend. The Boilermakers have four players who are averaging at least four receptions per game and are led by sophomore wide receiver David Bell. Through two games, Bell boasts a monstrous 22 catches for 243 yards and four touchdowns. His fellow sophomore teammate Milton Wright has 13 catches for 185 yards and one touchdown. For comparison, the ‘Cats’ leading receiver, senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, has 11 catches for 112 yards and has yet to score a touchdown. Northwestern must limit Bell and the Purdue wide receiver corps to win this game.

2. Battle of contrasting offenses

Northwestern’s offense is averaging just over 50 rushing attempts per game this season. The ‘Cats ran for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns against Iowa in week two, but averaged a meager 2.4 yards per rush. Mike Bajakian’s offense showed better efficiency against Nebraska last weekend, running the ball for 148 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per rush and scoring a touchdown. This week, Northwestern faces a Purdue defense that is allowing 186 rushing yards to opponents so far this season. Much like the Nebraska game, the ‘Cats’ offense has a great opportunity to establish its offensive running identity against Purdue.

Meanwhile, the Purdue offense is averaging less than 30 rushing attempts per game. Instead, the Purdue offense is reliant on the arm of junior quarterback Aidan O’Connell. In two games, O’Connell has already completed 60 of 85 passing attempts for 653 and five touchdowns. This is 10 more completions and over 100 more passing yards than the ‘Cats’ quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who has played in one more game than O’Connell. 

Northwestern averages 170 passing yards and 205 rushing yards per game while Purdue averages over 320 passing yards and less than 100 rushing yards. Whichever team can establish its offensive strength will be an early indicator of who has the upper hand.

3. How will Isaiah Bowser contribute?

Junior running back Isaiah Bowser was notably missing from the Nebraska game. His absence was not only seen on the stat sheet, but also on the field as the ‘Cats’ third-down efficiency dipped last week. If Bowser returns for this game, his presence alone could help reinvigorate the offense. As the “bell cow” running back, Bowser already has a promising season set up, showcasing a knack for fighting through contact. The ‘Cats offense would certainly welcome back his leadership and running ability against an exploitable Purdue defense.

4. Northwestern’s X-factors

Running back Drake Anderson, wide receiver Kyric McGowan and tight end John Raine are some of Northwestern’s biggest offensive X-factors this year. Sophomore Anderson and senior McGowan both have acted as shifty hybrid skill players who produce positive results from creative play calls. Graduate transfer Raine has a solid connection with Ramsey and is a threat in late-down situations. At least one of these three players scored a touchdown in each game this season, so Purdue’s defense will face a pick-your-poison dilemma with this troublesome trio. Expect to see Anderson and McGowan receive more overall touches than Raine against the Boilermakers, but don’t be surprised if Raine is the player who catches a critical third-down pass from quarterback Peyton Ramsey late in the game.

5. Will the defensive streaks continue for Northwestern?

The ‘Cats’ defense currently has two admirable streaks going this season: (1) not giving up any points in the second half of games and (2) forcing at least two turnovers per game. These streaks, especially the former, are key reasons why Northwestern emerges victorious from close games. Can these streaks continue or will we see any of them come to an end in week four?

Predictions

The ‘Cats have yet to give up a single point in the second half. While this impressive stat will inevitably come to an end at some point, Northwestern has a decent chance to continue that streak if it can make Purdue one-dimensional on offense, either through the air or ground. Although Purdue’s passing game is no pushover, the ‘Cats showed that they can contain a pass-happy offense in their week two performance against Iowa. If the Northwestern running game capitalizes off of Purdue’s weak run defense and the ‘Cats secondary stymies the Boilermakers offensive rhythm (particularly the passing game), Northwestern will improve to 4-0. The ‘Cats should be able to ride their running game and bend-don’t-break defense to a victory.

Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 31-21

Bold prediction: Brandon Joseph records an interception for the third straight game.