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Northwestern at Purdue: A Preview

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Purdue faces a struggling, but dangerous Northwestern team on Senior Day.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, if not for a handful of things. Purdue enters its final home game at 3-7, which was considered a wild success at the beginning of the season, but after seeing the ten games played out, there are a ton of What Ifs:

  • What if the Central Michigan game wasn't one of Those Games where everything that could go wrong, did?
  • What if Austin Appleby starts vs. Iowa and gets the offense moving like he did in his first few starts?
  • What if Purdue doesn't blow a double-digit halftime lead in Minneapolis against a good Gopher team?
  • What if Appleby leads a successful touchdown drive late against Michigan State instead of getting pick sixed?

If even one of those goes Purdue's way the Boilers are still alive for bowl consideration. To me, the one that stings the most is the Central Michigan game. Purdue had just beaten Western Michigan, who is now 7-3 and 5-1 in the MAC as a possible winner of the West. We will find out Saturday who is better in the Western vs. Central showdown, but it is looking like Purdue easily handled a better team than Central and laid a massive turd on the turf of Ross-Ade.

But that was then. There is nothing we can do about it now. The Boilers have two games left and can win both, setting up some momentum as we head into 2015 (which absolutely needs to be a bowl year if we win these last two). Up first is a Northwestern team that has been wildly up and down all season.

It is really, really hard to project what this Northwestern team is going to do. After facing some of the most prolific running backs in the country in the last four games we get a rushing offense that ranks 107th at the FBS level. In terms of scoring the Wildcats have struggled to put points on the board, averaging just 20.5 per game. This is 112th in the nation and last in the Big Ten. That could be thrown out the window, however, as they just hung 43 on a Notre Dame team in South Bend when we struggled to get to 14 against the Irish.

Northwestern has three pretty good wins over the Irish, Wisconsin, and at Penn State. They also lost at home to Northern Illinois and California, got blown out at Iowa, and lost at home to a punchless Michigan team in one of the uglier games you'll ever see. They feel like a team that could beat anyone (again, they beat Wisconsin, who just scored against on Nebraska), but they could also lose to anyone (out-gained at home by Western Illinois, who is 4-7 at the FCS level).

Even though Northwestern is 4-6 they have a lot to play for after last week's wild win over Notre Dame. They see Purdue and Illinois, two of the worst teams in the Big Ten, and a route to 6-6 and a bowl game.

Who to Watch on Offense:

Justin Jackson - Running Back - He is not Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, or Melvin Gordon, but Jackson has quietly had a pretty good season and will likely be a 1,000 yard back for the Wildcats. He has 910 yards rushing with six touchdowns and serves as the primary ground option. He is not a hulking back like we have faced, but the 5'11", 180 pound freshman had a big day against both Notre Dame and Wisconsin. His 162 yards against the Badgers came on 33 carries as he helped Northwestern kill the clock and play keep away.

Trevor Siemian - Quarterback - First, the good: Siemian has 2,121 yards passing. Then, the bad: he only has 6 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and he completes only 58% of his passes. Even last week he threw two picks against only one TD, but he had a very big touchdown run with under five minutes left to help set up the game-tying field goal. He is not a great runner (he is actually at -122 yards rushing on the year), but he has rushed for five touchdowns so he knows how to pick his spots. You can get to him. He has been sacked 31 times, so now is the time to find a pass rush. Otherwise he is capable of picking teams apart.

Various Receivers - The Northwestern passing attack scares me because Purdue has struggled all year long to stop teams that have only one primary receiver. Even when we know where the ball is going we can't stop it. Northwestern has five receivers with over 20 receptions, so they clearly like to spread the ball around. Kyle Prater and Dan Vitale leads with 47 and 34 receptions, respectively.

Who to Watch on Defense:

Godwin Igwebuike - Safety - This guy is the reason that Northwestern beat Wisconsin. All three of his interceptions on the season came against the Badgers. He also has 45 tackles.

Chi Chi Ariguzo - Linebacker - The senior leads the team with 84 tackles, but has only four for loss and a sack.

Dean Lowry - Defensive End - There isn't much of a pass rush, but the Northwestern defense as a whole is pretty good at only 24.1 points per game. Lowry leads the team in sacks with 3.5. Overall, not a lot stands out about the defense because the yards per game are pretty pedestrian, but this team forces turnovers and keeps points off the board. That's all that matters.

Who to Watch on Special Teams:

Jack Mitchell - Kicker - The reigning Special Teams Player of the Week hit four field goals last week at Notre Dame, including a 45-yarder to tie it and a 41-yarder to win it in overtime. He and Paul Griggs are two of the hottest kickers in the Big Ten.

Miles Shuler - Punt Returner - Shuler can be dangerous, as he has a 42 yard punt return on the season.

Game Outlook:

When you look at the season, turnovers have played a huge role in the wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin. The Wildcats are +5 in turnover margin and have 12 interceptions to go with nine fumble recoveries. Against both Wisconsin and Notre Dame Northwestern forced four turnovers, so ball security is huge. It seems like if Purdue can hold on to the football it will go a long way towards beating them.

The Wildcats also benefited from gigantic mistakes made by the Irish last week. The first was Brian Kelly inexplicably going for 2 and not getting it with 10:34 left in the game last week. That ended up biting the Irish later on, as an extra point gives them a 12 point lead and a four point lead before the last second field goal. The second was the fumble that allowed the last field goal to happen. If the Irish merely take a knee they have to punt into the end zone with roughly 10-15 seconds left, but they ran a play and were burned after the BS pass interference call gave them what should have been the game clinching first down.

It is really hard to make a call on this game because Northwestern has been so wildly inconsistent. They easily could be 2-8 right now, but they also probably should be 7-3. The offense is awful, but they just put up 43 on a team we only scored 14 against. Their defense is one of those that gives them a chance in every game. The offense is questionable at best since they had not scored more than 20 points since September 27 before last week.

Purdue has a great chance at a win here. The Boilers have to hold on to the football and hit on a few big plays with our speed. It should, should be an easier game for our defense than in the past few weeks. I really like our chances if we get to 25 points, and even more if we hit 30.

Keys to the Game for Purdue:

  • Limit turnovers
  • Find ways to capitalize with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert
  • Pick off Siemian a few times (Landon Feichter?)
  • Be patient on offense and capitalize on their mistakes