NU Football Preview: Purdue
By Brea Lassek
Northwestern has dropped its last four contests, but on Saturday, it’s a whole new ballgame. Chicago’s Big Ten Team will play their last home game of the 2021 season at Wrigley Field against the Purdue Boilermakers.
The ‘Cats last played at the Friendly Confines on Nov. 20, 2010, when they faced Illinois for the first college football game ever at Wrigley Field. Last season, NU and Wisconsin were slated for a matchup from the corner of Clark & Addison, but the game was played at Ryan Field due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our program is thrilled to bring Big Ten football back to one of the most iconic venues in sports,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “This will be an incredible opportunity for our student-athletes and staff, and an unforgettable day for our University community. This would not be possible without the hard work of so many, and we sincerely appreciate the partnership of the entire Cubs organization to make it a reality.”
The ‘Cats will have their hands full with a Purdue team that has played spoiler throughout the 2021 season, upsetting the then-No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes and then-No. 3 Michigan State. The Wildcats currently sit in last in the Big Ten West while Purdue occupies the No. 4 spot.
The Boilermakers travel to the Windy City this Saturday after a 59-31 loss at No. 4 Ohio State. Purdue’s attack through the air propelled its offense against the Buckeyes with QB Aidan O’Connell going 40-for-52 with 391 passing yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Wide receiver David Bell grabbed 103 of those yards and averaging 9.3 per catch. O’Connell spread the wealth among his receiving corps, as Milton Wright, Jackson Anthrop (2) and Broc Thompson all recorded touchdowns. The Boilermakers failed to establish the run game, however, accumulating only 91 yards on the ground.
Despite its offensive power, Purdue could not stop the Buckeyes’ own scoring parade, as Ohio State dominated in both the passing and running game. The Buckeyes accumulated 263 yards on the ground, averaging 8.5 yards-per-carry. In the air, C.J. Stroud threw for a monstrous 361 yards and five touchdowns, earning a quarterback rating of 97.1. Jaylan Alexander led the Purdue defense with 10 tackles (four solo).
Northwestern’s matchup in Madison last Saturday resulted in a 35-7 stomping by Wisconsin. Stephon Robinson Jr. led the ‘Cats in receiving and rushing yards, earning 80 and 54, respectively. Turnovers plagued NU, especially during crucial offensive drives. Andrew Marty threw three interceptions, one on 2nd & goal on Wisconsin’s 10 yard line during the ‘Cats’ opening drive. Northwestern’s offense never got into rhythm after that, its lone touchdown coming off a Wisconsin fumble that A.J. Hampton Jr. returned for six.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, cruised offensively, as QB Graham Mertz threw for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Badgers also recorded 268 yards on the ground with Braelon Allan’s 173-yard effort leading the way.
After Saturday’s matchup, the ‘Cats are last in the Big Ten in run defense, giving up an average of 228.9 yards-per-game. The next closest team? Maryland with an average of 157.5 yards-per-game. Thankfully for NU, the Purdue rushing attack is far less threatening than Wisco’s, as the Boilermakers rank last in the Big Ten in rushing yards-per-game (78.5). The real area of concern for NU’s defense is defending Purdue’s passing game. O’Connell has an arsenal of weapons to target, namely Bell. In last season’s matchup, Greg Newsome II shut down Bell, but the ‘Cats cannot rely on the now-Cleveland Browns cornerback this year. Northwestern will need to win the battle in the air on the defensive side if they want to be competitive in this one.
With uncertainty all season around the quarterback room, Fitzgerald has strayed away from discussing another possible position battle at kicker. Fifth-year Charlie Kuhbander is 6-for-12 on the season, missing another field goal against the Badgers. Without full confidence in their kicker, the ‘Cats are forced to attempt to convert more on fourth downs while in the red zone — a hurdle for an already struggling offense.
To catch all the action, tune in to our broadcast on Saturday from Wrigley Field just before kick-off at 11 a.m. CT.