Know thy Opponent 2010: Northwestern Wildcats

I can only imagine the anguish of Purdue fans last year in the loss to Northwestern. I missed that game as Mrs. T-Mill and I headed to Miami to see her Hurricanes take on Oklahoma. In search of a place with the Big Ten Network, I found a bar that at least had DirectTV. They could only find me Alabama at Kentucky, forcing me to refresh GameTracker on my laptop.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Purdue turned the ball over six times, including one stretch where they turned it over three times in four plays, giving the Wildcats 13 points before halftime. I thought GameTracker was stuck on repeat. Of all of last season's lossess, this may have been the most frustrating. If Purdue holds on to the ball, or even cuts the turnover number in half, they likely win. Even then, they had a chance in the closing seconds with a first down inside the 15, but Joey Elliott couldn't find Aaron Valentin on fourth down.

That loss would ultimately cost us a bowl bid. As J at Lake the Posts said yesterday, it also spurred Northwestern on to their Outback Bowl bid against Auburn. This year's game is a night game in Evanston that will be a key swing game for both squads. It is the conference opener for both teams, and both stand decent chances of being 4-0 coming in. once again, I will be in Miami (Mrs. T-Mill couldn't resist the allure of Miami-Florida State that day), but rest assured, I will work even harder to find the Big Ten Network this time for what should be a great night game.

2009 Record: 8-5, 5-3 Big Ten

Bowl Result: lost 38-35 (OT) to Auburn in Outback Bowl)

Blog Representation: Lake the Posts, Sippin' on Purple

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

Last Season for the Wildcats

Last season for Northwestern was a lot like their bowl game: It was wildly entertaining with unexpected results. The Wildcats upset #4 Iowa and #16 Wisconsin, but lost unexpectedly to Syracuse and Minnesota. The Outback Bowl against Auburn saw them erase a 14 point deficit in the final three and a half minutes, but they lost in overtime when their fake field goal attempt came up just short.

This year they could be undefeated at 5-0 before hosting us. They are the only Big Ten team with two true road non-conference games as they go to Vanderbilt and Rice. They host Illinois State and Central Michigan out of league play before going to Minnesota just before our game. We have a bye the previous week, our first in-season by since 2004. The Big Ten Network has already announced this game as a night game. As Lake the Posts mentioned yesterday, they expect a rare sellout because of the later kickoff, but many of those fans could make the easy drive from West Lafayette.

Northwestern Offense

Northwestern is one of the few teams in the conference that has preferred the passing game almost as long as we have. Mike Kafka made it work very well last season, throwing for 3,430 yards and 16 touchdowns. He is off to the NFL where he is battling Joey Elliott for a backup spot with the Eagles. Stepping in is 6'1" junior Dan Persa, who was a decorated prep quarterback in Pennsylvania, but turned off many teams because of his lack of size. This sounds a bit like Drew Brees except for the knee injury.

Persa saw some action as a backup last year. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions. He can run a bit two after racking up 167 yards on the ground. Most of his work came against Penn State and Iowa. In both games he was Northwestern's leading rusher. We will have to contain him in the backfield and make sure he doesn't create something out of nothing with his feet.

Persa lost both of his top receivers in Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer. Markshausen was a force in the Purdue game, going for 10 catches and 56 yards. He's not going to burn you. His longest catch of the year was only 30 yards, but he is a solid possession guy that excels at short yardage and moving the chains. Brewer (57-925-9) was the big play threat. Both combined for more than 1700 yards, 12 scores, and about 150 catches.

That leaves Drake Dunsmore (47-523-3) as the leading returning receiver. Dunsmore is a bit of a hybrid fullback/tight end. That means he excels in Northwestern's short, steady passing game. Sydney Stewart (42-470-2) is a senior that has plenty of experience in the program and should help the passing game. Demertrius Fields (24-225-1) and Jeremy Ebert (21-226-0) will also play larger roles. It is Northwestern. We should expect them to spread the ball around as much as possible. In the Purdue game alone last season they had seven players split 28 completions. Our young secondary will be tested in coverage without one guy (ala Eric Decker, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, etc) that is "THE guy".

We did a fairly good job against the running game last year, but that is to be expected when we kept handing them a short field. Arby Fields only ran for 302 yards and five touchdowns, but one of those scores was in the Purdue game. Jacob Schmidt (217-1), Scott Concannon (241-2), and Stephen Simmons (233-2) will also likely see time at running back, but this is a team that relies much more on the pass to set up the quick hit run. All four guys are capable receivers out of the backfield too.

The offensive line is experienced with three returning starters, but it also gave up 32 sacks last year. Al Netter and Ben Burkett have started every game for the past two seasons while Doug Bartels is a one year starter. CFN's preview lists Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe as the other two projected starters. Overall the line is a little undersized by Big Ten Standards. Two guys (Burkett and Mulroe) are under 300 pounds, while the other three hover around that weight. They have the talent to be an effective group though. They are at their best when Northwestern is in its short, quick passing game. That passing game was the best in the Big Ten a year ago, spelling danger for our inexperienced secondary.

Northwestern Defense

It is safe to say that the Wildcat defense had a pretty good day against us, but most of it was because we kept handing them the football. With better ball security we win last season's game by two touchdowns. That is why I am encouraged heading into this season's contest. The personnel on both sides of the football is not drastically different. We proved we can move the football against them. Now we just need to prove we can hold on to it.

There are some solid pieces to build around with this defense. Linebacker Quentin Davie could be one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten with a solid senior season. He led Northwestern with 90 tackles, five sacks, and 11.5 tackles for loss to go with an interception and a fumble recovery. He likes playing on the outside and could stick a hand in the dirt a few times as an end with his 6'4" frame. Nate Williams was second on the team with 84 tackles and also returns to give them experience at linebacker. Ben Johnson looks to move into a starting role after notching 28 stops as a reserve.

The secondary is almost as depleted as our own, returning Jordan Madin as the lone starter. He is a pretty good cornerback with 75 tackles and two interceptions. Gone is Sherrick McManis and his five picks, one of which turned the Purdue game around. In his place at the other corner spot is Justan Vaughn. Vaughn had a pick as a reserve, but battled injuries in 2009. The safeties are still up  for grabs. David Arnold could move back after starting five games at linebacker. Jared Carpenter and Brian Peters are also candidates to start. Considering that Joey Elliott threw for over 300 yards last season, we should have some room.

While Keith Smith and our receiving corps will likely find a few holes in the defense, the Northwestern defensive line must replace all-everything Corey Wootton. Vince Browne could be ready to take over to Wootton. He finished with five sacks, one more than Wootton last year. Wootton was hardly healthy all season though. Corbin Bryant and Kevin Watt should also start along the offensive line, but the real key to a Boiler victory is in defensive tackle Jack DiNardo. The possible first-time starter is the nephew of former IU coach Gerry DiNardo, who never even came close to a win over Purdue. Quentin Williams will provide depth on the end after missing much of last year with a knee injury. This is a big line with all four projected starters weighing over 265 pounds.

Northwestern Special Teams

Ah Stefan Demos.  I actually feel sorry for the kid. He won the Travis Dorsch Memorial Trophy for worst performance by a kicker in the Outback Bowl. He was a solid 18 of 25 on field goals for the year with a long of 49, but missed two field goals and had an extra point blocked. His day at Purdue was the opposite as our continuous fumbling led to a four field goal day.

Demos was also the punter last year, averaging only 35 yards per kick in 65 attempts. He might give way in that game to walk-on Brandon Williams. In the return game Brendan Smith was unexceptional returning punts, while Stephen Simmons and Jeravin Matthews split kickoff return duties. Simmons was the better returner at 25 yards per return. Northwestern's kick coverage was good, but their punt coverage was bad in giving up 10 yards per return with one touchdown.

Intangibles

Now it is time to talk about the truth of Northwestern's two game winning streak against us. We played like crap in both games. In 2008 we quit on the field, as J from Lake the Posts so eloquently put it. In 2009 we handed them a six point win with six turnovers. I can't help but feel like last year is a win if not for atrocious ball security.

That said, Northwestern is still a solid team. I see them as very similar to us in terms of talent. Both teams are breaking in new secondaries and starting quarterbacks. Of all of our games, I think this one may be the most even.

Game Outlook

I think for Purdue to have any chance to go to a New Year's Day Bowl game we have to get this one. Northwestern is thinking the same thing. They should have a good crowd for once because of the night game atmosphere, but it is also close enough for a lot of Purdue fans to come up. They only have five true home games this year because of the Wrigley Field game against Illinois, so this is their biggest home game.

I feel like Purdue wins as long as it takes care of the football. We have turned the ball over 11 times in the past two games against Northwestern. The 2008 game was also lost when we had to settle for two field goals in the first quarter instead of touchdowns. Purdue also needs to get its running game going. Al-Terek McBurse should be broken in by this point. This is also the projected return date for Ralph Bolden. We need to run the ball and keep their fast paced offense off the field where it can't hurt our secondary.

Prediction

This is the toughest game of the first half of the season. That's right, I think this is tougher than Notre Dame because the Wildcats have proven they can win with more regularity of late than the Irish. I think Purdue pulls out a close one, but I definitely can see a Northwestern victory as well. Purdue 31, Northwestern 30

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