This is the final full week of non-conference play in the Big Ten, but Purdue and Wisconsin will play the only conference game thanks to a game they have later on with independent BYU. So, while everyone else in the league is playing a patsy, the winner of the Purdue-Wisconsin game will get an early leg up on the race to Pasadena.
It is a familiar road for Wisconsin fans, too. They've played in three straight Rose Bowls now, losing to TCU, Oregon, and Stanford in all three. Still, they are a good team that has supplanted Ohio State atop the conference with three straight Big Ten titles. Making things even more difficult, they have absolutely OWNED Purdue over the last decade. Here are the last seven games since Purdue won in Madison in 2003:
2004: Wisconsin 20, Purdue 17 (a.k.a., the Fumble)
2005: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 20
2006: Wisconsin 24, Purdue 3
2009: Wisconsin 37, Purdue 0
2010: Wisconsin 34, Purdue 13
2011: Wisconsin 62, Purdue 17
2012: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 14
The last four have been especially brutal. Somehow Purdue led at halftime in 2010 with Sean Robinson playing quarterback as a fourth string true freshman, but that is the only game that has been remotely close in the last four years. Even last year's 38-14 loss is deceptively close, as the Nordfense scored on the opening possession and decided that was enough for the rest of the day.
Hopefully we will see a turnaround in Madison, but it could be another long day.
Wisconsin Offense vs. Purdue Defense
It is pretty clear what the Badgers are going to do. Danny Hope seemed stunned by the revelation that everyone else knows, but Wisconsin is a good running team. This is a well known fact, but under Hope the Badgers seemed to run the ball with even greater efficiency. Hope defenses always looked surprised that Wisconsin came out with a power rushing attack instead of the air raid or something. Montee Ball personally ran for 643 yards and eight touchdowns in his career against Purdue, which was over 11% of the total yards in his career. it was a sickening efficient formula: hand the ball off to a good running back behind a massive offensive line, repeat.
Thankfully, Ball is gone, but as always, there is a stable of good backs to replace him. Melvin Gordon has 477 yards and four touchdowns and is averaging an astounding 12.9 yards per carry. James White (297 yards, 2 scores) and Corey Clement (251 yards, 3 scores) have also been very good as the Badgers rank fifth in the nation in rushing at 337 yards per game. Sure, a large reason for this comes from Wisconsin's first two opponents being outscored 93-0, but even against Arizona State Gordon ran for 193 yards and two scores.
As always, Wisconsin has a very large line blocking for them. All five starters are in the neighborhood of 320 pounds and at least 6'5", being Purdue's front four is in for a rough day. Greg Latta had six tackles against Notre Dame and Ryan Russell was effective, but this will be one of the strongest tests for Purdue's front seven. Rob Havenstein at 6'8" and 327 pounds is their biggest lineman, and it is not like the rest of them are runts. Zac Matthias at 6'5" 318 is the smallest starter.
With such a strong front and three good backs Joel Stave has had to serve the role that many Wisconsin quarterbacks have done: he shouldn't fumble the snap and hand the ball off. When he does throw he is completing 63% of his passes for 603 yards and six scores against two picks. Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen give him two reliable targets when he does have to throw, but at 201 yards passing per game they aren't going to throw a lot. As long as Ricardo Allen can handle Abbrederis and the big Pedersen isn't lumbering over the middle as a wide open tight end Purdue's secondary should have an easy day.
Of course, if Purdue gives up 467 yards rushing like it did last season it doesn't matter what the passing game does.
Purdue Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense
This area is harder to judge. Wisconsin began the season with consecutive shutouts, but Tennessee Tech and UMass will not be confused for Oregon in terms of offense any time soon. Saturday's screwjob loss to Arizona State is the only game where can truly judge the Wisconsin defense.
The Sun Devils did a very good job of moving the ball through the air and finishing drives on the ground. Taylor Kelly finished with 352 yards passing, but it was Marion Grice that finished drives. He only had 84 yards, but it pulled off The Bundy of four touchdowns in one game.
Wisconsin features one of the Big Ten's best linebackers in Chris Borland, who has 24 tackles, a sack, and even threw a pass on a fake punt against Arizona State. Wherever the ball is, Borland will be there. Ethan Armstrong is a second solid linebacker with 17 tackles.
The Badgers are only giving up 86 yards per game on the ground, but Arizona State had a lot more success than the first two opponents, so again, the numbers are skewed. Grice was able to find some holes, so hopefully Purdue can find some room for Dalyn Dawkins and Akeem Hunt.
Purdue had more success in the passing game behind Rob Henry against Notre Dame and hopefully Henry can build on that success. He still missed some throws, but for the most part he made smart decisions, threw the ball away when he should have, and hit guys like Hunt, B.J. Knauf, and Justin Sinz on the underneath routes to move the chains. In three games Wisconsin surprisingly only has one sack, so they are not getting much of a pass rush. Dezmen Southward, Leo Musso, and Sojourn Shelton each have an interception.
As long as Purdue can keep it close and be patient on offense I like the chances that something good will happen. Once again, the key is the offensive line. They have to protect Henry and open holes for the ground game.
Raheem Mostert continues to be avoided by kicking teams, and Wisconsin should do the same with good reason. Two years ago in Madison Mostert had a career day and for most of the day seemed like he was the sole prepared player as he tried in vain to return every kickoff for a score. He almost succeeded, as he had over 200 return yards and Wisconsin had 62 points to give him plenty of chances. Hunt has also shown that he can be a weapon on returns.
Kenzel Doe handles both kickoffs and punts for Wisconsin and does a decent job both ways, but now that B.J. Knauf has given Purdue a real, live punt return game this area may finally be a positive!
In the kicking game Paul Griggs missed his third field goal last week, and it was a relatively easy one. Kyle French is 2 of 3 on the year with a long of 34. Drew Meyer handles punting duties at 40 yards per kick, but Cody Webster is another major advantage here. Webster is 10th nationally at 47 yards per punt and his 73-yarder at Cincinnati was the fifth best punt of the year in all of college football.
One of the many reasons Danny Hope is no longer the head coach at Purdue is his complete lack of preparedness against Wisconsin. His teams were outscored 171 to 44 in four games, got shutout once, and had only one game of the four even be competitive at halftime. It wasn't so much that his teams were blown out, it was that Purdue looked completely and totally unprepared from the opening kickoff.
A prime example is the 2009 game. John Clay was one of the Big Ten's best backs at the time, but Purdue looked shocked that Wisconsin was going to run the ball. The very first drive the Badgers went 80 yards in 11 plays, all running plays, and faced only third down twice. Wisconsin went on to win 37-0 and Purdue never even came close to scoring.
At most, Purdue has to come out and actually look prepared. Against Wisconsin, especially with higher stakes last year, that never happened under Hope. Last season Purdue knew that a victory at home would not only be big, it would likely decide the division's representative in the Big Ten title game. Instead of looking ready Purdue acted like this Montee Ball character had never even been heard of. That, or that he was radioactive and could not be touched at any cost. As I said, Purdue gave up 467 yards on the ground and the only reason it wasn't over 500 is that Wisconsin was feeling merciful.
We all know that the Badgers are going to run the ball. Purdue has to find a way to make Stave throw the ball and take the Badgers out of their comfort zone. Purdue has not been that bad against the run at just 117 yards given up per game. It was a lot better against Notre Dame until the fourth quarter. If the Purdue of the first three quarters against Notre Dame shows up in Madison we at least have a chance.
Raid the State Street Bars if:
- Purdue slows down the run
- Purdue slows down the run
- No, seriously, IF PURDUE SLOWS DOWN THE RUN!
- The defense plays strong for all four quarters
- Henry avoids the crippling interception and continues to improve
- Purdue's run game gets on track
Same old, same old if:
- Wisconsin continues to run for 400 yards with ease against us
- The Purdue offense stagnates again
Prediction: Coming in Firday's picks column.