Know thy Opponent 2009: Northwestern Wildcats

Under coach Tiller, beating Northwestern and winning our homecoming game were each regular affairs. It was only late in his tenure that we finally lost a homecoming game (2004 against Wisconsin) and a game against the Wildcats (the 2005 disaster). It is not necessarily a sign of our decline that we started losing games to Northwestern, as the Cats have become a solid team. Last season's effort, or lack thereof, however, was a sign of how far we have fallen.

On paper, both teams were relatively equal going into last season's game. What followed was one of the most uninspired days of Purdue football in the last 15 years. We dropped passes. We missed tackles. We missed assignments. The only thing we did was run the ball effectively, as we wasted a 170+ yard, two touchdown effort from Kory Sheets. I don't have a problem losing a game to a good team like Northwestern. I do have a problem when we get blown out because of lack of interest.

That game was really the one that sealed our losing season. Losses to Penn State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oregon were tough, but not unexpected. Not only did we lose at Northwestern in a game many thought would be a win, we lost badly. This season's contest could be equally important the other way. Likely we're going to be coming in at 2-2. Anything worse and it is already over. Anything better, and we will have pulled off a pretty major upset. At 2-2, however, the Northwestern game will be a must win to have any bowl hopes.

2008 Record: 9-4

Bowl result: Lost to Missouri 30-23 OT in Alamo Bowl

Blog Representation: Lake the Posts

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 49-26-1

Last Purdue win: 10/27/07 at Purdue 35-17

Last Northwestern win: 10/18/08 at Northwestern 48-26                 

Last Season for the Wildcats:

If not for a shocking loss to Indiana, the Wildcats probably would have played in a New Year's Day Bowl. The Wildcats won all of their non-conference games for the first time in more than four decades and finished 5-3 in the Big Ten. Aside from the Indiana loss, the other three losses were to ranked teams in Michigan State, Ohio State, and Missouri. The conference losses weren't that competitive against Michigan State and Ohio State, but the Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri was an exciting game decided in overtime.

Northwestern loses some playmakers on offense, but there is enough talent to ward off a huge step back like has happened in the past. A relatively easy slate of Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse, and Minnesota leads off the schedule before they come to Purdue. Northwestern is this year's lucky recipient of the Big Ten's schedule gift, missing Michigan and Ohio State for the next two seasons. Their two toughest games are at Michigan State and at home against Penn State. Indiana is sandwiched between those two.

Northwestern offense:

The Northwestern offense faces the same challenge that we must face in having to replace its top quarterback and top running back. Tyrell Sutton ran for 890 yards and six touchdowns last year while C.J. Bacher threw for 2,432 yards and 17 scores. Sutton missed the final four games of the regular season, while Bacher missed the Minnesota and Ohio State games. That leaves Mike Kafka as the leading returner in both the rushing and passing categories.

Kafka is a lot like Joey Elliott in that he has waited his turn to play as the full-time starter. Unlike Elliott, he has starting experience. Not only did Kafka start both games that Bacher missed last season, He started the first four games of the 2006 season before injury. He had 505 yards passing and a touchdown against five interceptions in 2006, but was much better in both games in 2008. Against Minnesota he only threw for 143 yards and two touchdowns against two picks, but his running was the story of that contest. He ran for a school record (for a quarterback) 217 yards in a game that was decided by a late pick six. He finished with 321 yards on the ground, and as Lake the Posts said Monday, he may be a better decision maker than Bacher. For Northwestern to have a successful season he must improve on his career 3 to 8 touchdown-interception ratio.

Mike Kafka is a threat on the ground, but he will need to improve his passing accuracy in 2009.

Stephen Simmons will likely step in as the top running back, replacing Sutton and Omar Conteh. Simmons ran for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 62 carries in 2008, so he has some experience. Simmons is a quick back, but had an ankle injury that limited him for most of the year. He is a junior, so he is experienced in the system. Alex Daniel and Jeravin Matthews should also see some time in the backfield.

Northwestern lost its top four receivers, much like us, when Sutton, Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, and Rasheed Ward all graduated. In their place are Andrew Brewer (18-145-0) and Jeremy Ebert (15-161-2) as the top two returning players statistically. Tight end Josh Rooks is also likely going to get involved in the offense more as a combination fullback/tight end. In Northwestern's offense the Wildcats like to spread the ball around to many different receivers. Demetrius Fields is a promising redshirt freshman with speed that will be one of many players that needs to step up.

The main thing that will help Northwestern's offense with so few returning playmakers is its offensive line. Four starters come back from a line that gave up 18 sacks and paved the way for 1,800 yards rushing. It is a young line too, with just one senior. Desmond Taylor, Doug Bartels, Al Netter, and Benn Burkett all return to a line that has every projected start under 300 pounds. That is very rare in the Big Ten, but it is helpful to Northwestern's hurry-up style of offense. They are a group more inclined to be athletic and quick rather than giant road-grinders. They really only need to give Kafka enough time to through and holes to run through.

Northwestern defense:

This will be Northwestern's strength, especially early on as so many new playmakers get used to the scheme. By game five they should be a pretty good unit that we might have some difficulty moving the ball against. I know I keep stressing the point, but we have to make a committed effort to stay with the running game. We ran well against Northwestern last season, and the first four teams we face (with the exception of Northern Illinois) are better against the pass than the run.

Northwestern could struggle against the run again if defensive end Corey Wootton isn't fully healthy. Wootton had 10 sacks last season, but injured his knee in the Alamo Bowl against Missouri. He is a big defensive end at 6'7", 265 that is deceptively quick. He is the rock of the line, and at this time next year he will likely be making a lot of money in the NFL somewhere. The rest of the line could struggle if Wootton isn't 100%. Tackle John Gill, who had four sacks and 44 tackles overall, was lost to graduation. Corbin Bryant returns as a starter at the other tackle position, but Adam Hahn and sophomore end Vince Browne will be first-time starters along the line. This is a big defensive line with everyone over 6'4" and 270 pounds.

Quentin Davie is the only returning starting among the three linebackers, but with a former All-American linebacker as a head coach I doubt the Wildcats have unprepared players taking over. Davie was pretty good at getting into the backfield with 9.5 tackles for loss last season from the strongside position. Nate Williams will be the middle linebacker with starting experience from the second half of last year. He finished with 66 tackles and a sack despite not playing much in the first half of the season. Ben Johnson is a bit of an unknown player at the third linebacker spot. He only had 6 tackles as a cornerback last season, and will need more production at linebacker. Aaron Nagel, a Notre Dame transfer, will likely provide key depth.

Northwestern's secondary has nearly as much experience as our own, so it should be pretty good once again. Three seniors in Brad Phillips, Brendan Smith, and Sherrick McMannis will be joined by solid sophomore Jordan Mabin at the four defensive back positions. Phillips led Northwestern with 109 tackles and three interceptions. Smith had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was the game winner in the closing seconds at Minnesota.  McManis will be their shutdown corner in his third year as a starter, and he may be one of the best in the Big Ten. This will be one of the better secondaries we will face all season, and it should do well enough to allow the front seven to play strong against the run.

Overall, Northwestern's defense wasn't very strong at creating turnovers...except against us. The Wildcats created 25 turnovers in 13 games, but five of those came from our very generous offense. That is a testament to just how badly we played in Evanston.

Northwestern Special Teams:

Northwestern must find a new kicker to replace Armondo Villarreal, who hit on 20 of 25 field goals last year but missed a crucial extra point in the bowl game. Punter Stefan Demos, who averaged 39 yards per kick, will try to pull double duty, but that is a tall task for any kicker as we found out last year with Chris Summers. Demos is excellent at dropping kicks inside the 20 with 49 such boots over the past two years, but he has yet to do field goals. Incoming freshman Jeff Budzien might be a better choice as a kicker. He is one of the top kicking prospects in the nation with a big leg.

Stephen Simmons was the top kick returner last season, but wasn't a huge threat with a 22.1 yard average. Brendan Smith was similar on punt returns with a 7.9 yard average. McManis should also see some work on returning kicks. Northwestern had one of the top kickoff coverage teams in the nation last year, holding teams to less than 19 yards per return.

Intangibles

To me, Coach Pat Fitzgerald is a highly underrated coach. He took over under the most difficult of circumstances at a place where academics always come before football and he has had quick success. The guy has an energy that few coaches can match, and I personally think that big time schools who think they can eventually lure him away from Northwestern are dreaming. The guy bleeds purple. He is beloved for his contributions as a player. He is a legend that I think will never leave his alma mater. Him leaving Northwestern would be as big of a betrayal as Matt Painter leaving our basketball program.

Game Outlook

Northwestern will likely take a slight step back this year. A huge reason for their success last season against us was that we played an absolutely pathetic game. We were disinterested and didn't take care of the ball. I don't think Coach Hope will let that happen again. If you even those things out, I think we can compete with Northwestern on a level playing field. If we're going to a bowl game in 2009 this is a game we likely need to win. It is critical that we win games at home that are winnable. This could be a very low scoring game as two inexperienced offenses will go against to experienced defenses. Turnovers will likely be the key, just as they have been in the last two games in this series. In 2007 Northwestern was sloppy with the ball in the first and fourth quarters, leading to a big win for us. The reverse was true last year and Northwestern won.

Prediction

I continue to press that this team will be better than most people think. In that case, we have to win games like the Northwestern game. I think the defense will have a big day against them and we will get a critical win for our bowl hopes. Purdue 20, Northwestern 14

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