After a week off we get back to football. Our assignment is not easy, either. Of the remaining eight games on the schedule, four teams are undefeated. All of them are currently in the top 25, with a fifth (Wisconsin) also in the top 25 after their loss in East Lansing this weekend. On paper, it looks like Northwestern is the weakest of these five teams, but that would discount their recent ownership of us in both football and basketball.
Though Purdue has a comfortable lead in the all-time standings, Northwestern has won four of the past six games in football and two of three in basketball. This "protected rivalry" goes off the board next season, meaning the Boilermakers and Wildcats will not play in 2011 (barring a shocking Big Ten title game) for the first time since 1994. Northwestern's last 3-game winning streak in the series spanned the two-year hiatus of 1993-94. The Wildcats beat Purdue 28-14 in 1992, then won in 1995 and 1996 during their consecutive Big Ten title seasons.
Of course, last year's game was possibly the rock bottom of Purdue's turnover woes. Northwestern won 27-21, but Purdue essentially handed them the game with six turnovers. 13 of Northwestern's 27 points came in a stretch where Purdue turned the ball over three times in the final two minutes of the first half in Wildcat territory. While turnovers haven't been a major issue for Purdue, injuries will be the story this year.
2010 Record: 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten)
2009 Record: 8-5, 5-3 Big Ten
Bowl Result: lost 38-35 (OT) to Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 49-27-1
Last Purdue win: 35-17 at Purdue on 10/27/2007
Last Northwestern win: 27-21 at Purdue on 10/3/2009
So far, this has been your typical Northwestern offense. They are very balanced out of the spread and can attack a variety of ways. Northwestern has wins over Vanderbilt, Rice, Central Michigan, Illinois State, and Minnesota. That's not a Murder's Row of BCS title contenders, but considering that three of those five victories have been on the road it's rather impressive. As usual, the Wildcats are excelling in close games. Three of their wins are by eight points combined, but we shouldn't be surprised by this. Northwestern has long been a team that comes up on the right side in close games for whatever reason.
Their passing offense ranks in the top 25 nationally thanks to Dan Persa, who has had little trouble moving the Wildcats down the field. The junior quarterback has thrown for 1,358 yards and 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He also has a near 80% completion rate. The dropped passes that have been our salvation in recent weeks won't be there, so our young secondary will be tested. It is absolutely imperitive that safeties Albert Evans and Logan lLnk come up and cover the middle of the field.
Persa also leads the team in rushing with 271 yards and two more touchdowns. Like us, Northwestern runs the ball by committee. Three backs (Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt, and Mike Trumpy) have more than 100 yards rushing, but none of them have more than 200.
Northwestern moves the ball well strictly because you don't know who is getting it. The offensive line has given up 12 sacks, but for the most part Persa has been able to connect with multiple receivers. Four players have at least 14 receptions and five have passed the 100 yard barrier. Ricardo Allen, possibly our best corner, will likely draw Jeremy Ebert (24-436-5) who is having an all-Big Ten caliber season so far. Sidney Stewart (18-218-0) and Drake Dunsmore (18-181-3) have done a fair amount of damage, while Demetrius Fields (14-163-0) is a nice target as well.
This is not a team that likes to throw the ball deep, meaning our weakness of refusing to cover the middle of the field will likely be exposed. Dwayne Beckford and Jason Werner must be ready to cover the slot receiver slanting over the middle. If I were Northwestern, I would runt hat play over and over until we can prove we want to stop it. It hasn't happened in years, so I don't expect to see it now. That's why I think Northwestern is a dangerous team because they love that route.
While Northwestern will likely move the ball against us, I think we can move the ball against them. Their run defense is average, giving up 122 yards per game against teams that don't run the ball as a priority. The pass defense has given up 250 yards per game, but if we didn't pass well against Toledo we can't expect to against the Wildcats.
This is where the injuries really affect our offense. Even if Rob Henry improves his passing, with Keith Smith and Justin Siller out we have to shift receivers around. The running back injuries have forced us to move Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross into the backfield, leaving only Cortez Smith and Kyle Adams to catch passes. Gary Bush has done little, so we need to have Dan Dierking, Al-Terek McBurse, and Keith Carlos healthy to move the ball on the ground and make both Edison and Ross passing targets again.
The pass rush is not overwhelming, as Northwestern has only 10 sacks on the season. We need to keep an eye on Vince Browne, however, who has five of those sacks. Only Ryan Kerrigan has more in the Big Ten.
Northwestern likes to intercept the ball, tallying nine picks on the season. Linebacker Quentin Davie leads the team with three picks. He also has five passes breakups and 3.5 tackles for loss, showing he can play all over the field. Safety Brian Peters leads the team with 37 tackles, but this is a defense that gets to the ball well. They don't give up big plays. The longest pass against them is 50 yards and the longest run is 33. They also have been effective at breaking up plays with 36 total tackles for loss. Corbin Bryant and Nate Williams, in addition to Browne and Davie, have been very effective with tackles for loss.
Northwestern Special Teams
This area has been a little shaky, as a missed extra point last week at Minnesota was critical for most of the game. Stefan Demos is only 13 of 16 on extra points and 7 of 10 on field goals. This was also a key area in last season's Outback Bowl loss to Auburn. Demos doesn't have a big leg with a long kick of only 42 yards. In the punting game Brandon Williams averages 40 yards per kick with 9 of 20 punts downed inside the 20.
Northwestern is not much of a threat in either the kick or punt return game, but our poor coverage on kickoffs can easily change that. Stephen Simmons has a long of 29 yards on kickoff returns, while Hunter Bates only averages 7.4 yards on punt returns.
There are so many intangibles going against us. This is a night game on the road, which we haven't won since 2007 at Minnesota. We're facing a ranked team on the road, which we haven't won in such a situation since 2003. We're starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback for the first time, though the immortal Brandon Hance won his first start on the road in 2001 at Cincinnati. Finally, we're facing a team that has the uncanny ability to pull out close games. I don't feel good about this.
Things could be different though. Allegedly McBurse, Dirking, Keith Carlos, and Jared Crank are healthy enough to play more in the backfield. If they can free up Ross and Edison we might be able to get the passing game moving. Rob Henry has also had two weeks to get acclimated to being the starter. I hate having musical quarterbacks. It never allows the offense to get in a rhythm and I can't believe we were doing it before Robert Marve got hurt. The coaching staff has said Sean Robinson is going to play, but we heard that last year with Caleb TerBush.
I think we're going to see one of two things happen. We're either going to see this team come out and finally play with some fire and great improvement that we have been looking forward to, or we will see what happened the last time we went to Evanston. In that game, we looked completely disinterested and suffered an embarrassing loss. It wasn't that losing to northwestern is embarrassing. Far from it. It more that the entire team folded and had very little effort in the loss.
This is a swing game. Win it, and the dream of a bowl game is still alive. Lose it, and reaching six wins becomes that much more difficult.