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Know Thy Opponent 2014: Northwestern Wildcats

Purdue and Northwestern have not played since 2010, making this conference game feel like a non-conference game.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For a long time Northwestern was on Purdue's football schedule every season. Before Nebraska joined, the Wildcats were one of Purdue's two "protected" opponents along with Indiana. It was a pretty nice system to have. Purdue and Northwestern met every year since the Wildcat program came out of nowhere to win the 1995 Big Ten title until 2010. Then Nebraska joined the conference. For three straight seasons there has been no game with the Wildcats, and now they are our division rivals.

Coming in to 2014 I have to say it is a good thing Northwestern is on the schedule. I would much rather have them and Minnesota than Michigan and Ohio State. They are coming off of a rough season as well, much like our 2010 season, which was the last time we played the Wildcats.

2013 Record: 5-7, 1-7 Big Ten

Bowl result: None

Blog Representation: Lake the Posts, Inside NU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-27-1

Last Purdue win: 10/9/2010 at Northwestern 20-17

Last Northwestern win: 10/3/2009 at Purdue 27-21

Last Season for the Wildcats:

It all fell apart during a night game in Evanston. The Wildcats were driving against Ohio State in a classic of a game but Kain Colter was stopped on fourth down. Ohio State went on to win 40-30, and Northwestern's 4-0 start sputtered to a 1-7 Big Ten finish.

To make matters worse, injuries were a huge factor in a series of agonizing losses. There was the Hail Mary at Nebraska, the late field goal by Michigan, a three-point home loss to Minnesota, and a seven point loss at Iowa in overtime.

This was a very good team that got completely derailed last year when it very easily could have won the Big Ten. Now they come in as the talk of college football for their union movement and hoping to return to a bowl game. The SB nation Big Preview summed up their luck the best:

A finished drive here, a fumble recovery there, and a knocked-down Hail Mary, and this team finishes 8-4. Instead, Northwestern missed a bowl for the first time since 2007. Close-game luck boosted some shaky Northwestern teams and got them to bowls earlier in Fitzgerald's tenure; it did the opposite in 2013.

Northwestern Offense:

It was supposed to be Kain Colter's year last season, but Trevor Siemian was forced to take over and wasn't terrible. He finished the year with over 2,100 yards passing and 11 TDs against nine interceptions. He was not the rushing threat that Kolter was, and he is by no means the top guy headed into this season.

Redshirt freshman Matt Alviti is pushing Siemian and could see some playing time. Alviti is a much smaller quarterback than Siemian, but he is an elusive dual-threat that is far more dangerous on the ground.

That ground game should be helped by the long-awaited return of Venric Mark. Mark rushed for almost 1,400 yards during Northwestern's 10-win season in 2012, but injuries limited him to only 97 yards last year. Treyvon Green had a good year with 736 yards and 8 scores. Both he and Green will give Northwestern a talented backfield and strong running game.

Northwestern did not pass as much as some of their better teams of the past, but their top three receivers are all back, each with over 30 receptions and 380 yards. Troy Jones and Christians Jones were virtually equal in targets, receptions, and yards, so they will help whatever quarterback ends up under center.

Where Northwestern is really going to be strong is the offensive line. All five starters are back. In fact, Northwestern gets all five top reserves back, too. Brandon Vitabile, Jack Konopka, and Paul Jorgensen are all seniors and Vitabile is one of the most experienced centers in the country with 38 career starts. The offense could not ask for a better situation to be in because of all the experience back up front.

Northwestern Defense:

Last year's defense was... not good for the most part. It ranked 68th against the run nationally and 101st against the pass, so with some protection Danny Etling and his talented receivers should be in for a big day. Yes, eight total starters are back, but is that necessarily a good thing on a defense that struggled?

Ibraheim Campbell had four interceptions last season and has six over the last two seasons combined, so throwing over the middle of the field is not advised since he is an excellent safety. He doesn't have a ton of help around him though. Traveon Henry, Nick VanHoose, and Matthew Harris combined for only one interception, though Henry did lead the team in tackles.

The defensive line lost its leader in sacks, but Dean Lowry should step in as a decent end after 4.5 sacks last season opposite the departed Tyler Scott. Chance Carter also provides some stability and size in the middle at 6'3", 295 pounds. Carter is also the lone senior up front.

Two of the top three linebackers are also back in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Both has respectable tackle numbers and were excellent against the pass with four and three interceptions, respectively. They are versatile players that will definitely help Northwestern's defense if it is to improve.

Northwestern Special Teams:

Troy Jones did a decent job returning punts, but this was not a good punting team and they have to replace their placekicker. Both of those could be major issues. There was almost no kickoff return game to speak of and Chris Gradone only averaged 37.8 yards per punt.

This can be a major plus for Purdue. Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt give us a pair of fantastic weapons that can make a huge difference in the return game.

Game Outlook:

In the pipe dream world where Purdue goes to a bowl game in 2014 this has to be one of the games it wins. It is a home game and Northwestern is a good, but not unbeatable team. After playing Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in succession this game will be far easier than those three. Northwestern is also coming off of a rough season, so at least record-wise it is something positive to look at.

That said, this is still a good team. The offense is going to be a pretty good one on the ground with several options. What has Purdue struggled again? Power running teams that can show a variety of looks.

It is really hard to say how the teams match up because there is barely anyone on both sides that played in 2010. It is almost like a non-conference game in that regard because there is no longer a familiarity.

Hopefully Purdue comes out of the gauntlet portion of its schedule a far better team. I have us at 4-6 coming into this one, which is not a horrible stretch given that we could absolutely beat The directional schools plus Illinois. That means an unlikely bowl game would still be possible by kickoff. Here in late July this feels like it could be a win. Come November, I may be wrong. Prediction: Purdue 27, Northwestern 24