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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Northwestern Wildcats

Last season Northwestern soundly defeated Purdue. Can that change this year?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It feels kind of odd to play Northwestern again. Every year between 1967 and 2010 the Boilermakers and Wildcats faced each other, as Northwestern was a protected opponent even in the post-Penn State Big Ten. Once the divisions split, however, the Wildcats spent 4 years off the schedule. Now that the divisions re-aligned after the addition of Rutgers and Maryland Northwestern is once again a permanent opponent.

Still, it has been five years since Purdue has visited Evanston. That game was Purdue's last road win over a ranked team to date, as the Boilers won 20-17 in a night game before losing the final six games of the season. It doesn't seem likely that either team will be ranked this year when this game comes around, but it could be a critical game for either team to get to a bowl game.

2014 Record: 5-7, 3-5 Big Ten

Bowl result: None

Blog Representation:  Inside NU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-28-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 11/22/2014 at Purdue 38-14

Last Season for the Wildcats:

When Northwestern came to West Lafayette last season they were a schizophrenic team. They had beaten Wisconsin and won at Notre Dame, but lost to Cal, Northern Illinois, and were blown out by Iowa. They ended up crushing Purdue 38-14 in a game that really wasn't even that close. They were up 24-0 before Purdue even scored and 38-7 before a very late Justin Sinz touchdown made the score a little better cosmetically. Two interceptions and three lost fumbles certainly did not help Purdue, either. Jimmy Hall was particularly a terror as he had an interception and recovered a fumble, both deep in Northwestern territory.

Overall, Northwestern's season was disappointing. They missed a bowl after getting drubbed by Illinois in the final week of the season. Losses to Northern Illinois, Cal, and Michigan also stung. At times they played like a 10-win team and at times they played like a 10 loss team. Because of that, they were 5-7 for a second straight year.

Northwestern Offense

Part of Northwestern's problems of late begin at the quarterback position. Injuries have prevented any sort of consistency. Trevor Siemian is gone and was knocked out of last year's game with a knee injury (yes, Purdue got blown out at home by a back up AND third string QB), leaving senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti to battle for the job. Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson will also factor in the mix. Oliver has the most experience, but that is not much when he has only 381 passing yards in his career. Alviti and Thorson are both 4-star prospects with a lot of promise, but 85 of Oliver's career passing yards came last season against Purdue in relief of Siemian.

It is hard to say much about the Wildcat offense until a clear winner emerges in the quarterback derby, but the winner will have a solid ground game to build on. Justin Jackson had an excellent freshman season with 1,187 yards and 10 TDs. He had 147 yards and two scores against Purdue as the Boilermakers did very little to slow him down on 23 carries. Basically, once Siemian went down with the injury we knew Jackson was getting the ball a lot more and did very little to stop him.

The passing game should also be better as Christian Jones, the top receiver in 2013, returns after missing all of last season. He had 54 receptions for 668 yards and is a big, strong receiver of the type that Purdue has always struggled against. Dan Vitale, Cameron Dickerson, and Miles Shuler should provide plenty of experience as the top four returning pass catchers are all seniors. If the Wildcats can find a quarterback he will have plenty of tools to use.

One thing that could slow things down is the offensive line, which loses three starters. Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier, and Eric Olson all have starting experience up front. This is a smaller offensive line, as there are several players listed under 300 pounds. It is a slightly more athletic line, however, and designed to let the offense spread things out.

Northwestern Defense

The Wildcats will have a very experienced front four going into this season with all four starters returning. Three of them are seniors as well, led by Dean Lowry, who had a team high four sacks in 2014. That experience does not mean they are good, however. There wasn't a ton of production because four sacks from a leading pass rusher is pretty low (that's where Purdue is). Greg Kuhar and Sean McEvilly are both 300+ pound tackles that should clog up space in the middle.

Northwestern will need them to take up space too. The top two linebackers are gone and Anthony Walker only got about half a season of experience. He did manage nine tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions, so he should get better as a promising sophomore. Here is what Bill C. had to say about the linebackers:

But we shouldn't overlook linebacker. Stalwart Chi Chi Ariguzo is gone, as are Jimmy Hall and Collin Ellis. From a stat perspective, linebackers are the easiest players on the defense to replace, and the fact that Ellis got hurt midway through the year ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it gave Anthony Walker time to develop. He responded with an excellent stat line (nine tackles for loss, five passes defensed).

Still, stellar linebacking play likely made the line look better, and now three of last year's five LBs are gone. That might mean the line needs to improve just to offset regression. It probably will, but if we conclude the line is important for efficiency and the linebackers are important for preventing big plays, we could see more of an all-or-nothing defense.

The secondary should be pretty good. Matthew Harris, Traveon Henry, and Nick VanHoose are three solid returning starters that tackled well and were pretty good at breaking up passes. Godwin Igwebuike also intercepted three passes and should see more time at safety. If the defensive line can apply pressure it will help this unit a lot.

Northwestern Special Teams

The good news is that Jack Mitchell was a decent kicker, going 14 of 18 on field goal attempts and 26 of 28 on PATs. The bad news is that Hunter Niswander is not a great punter at only 36 yards per kick.

Thankfully, for Purdue, Tony Jones is gone. He averaged 20 yards per punt return and took one all the way back against us. Mile Shuler will take over for him. In the kick return game watch out for Solomon Vault, who also had a touchdown return.

Game Outlook

This is game two of a relatively easy four game closing kick for Purdue. With a team that needs to play with some confidence playing Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana to finish the year is about as easy as you can ask for, especially after the brutal opening stretch that includes a tough road game at Marshall, a visit from the only team to beat Ohio State in the regular season in three years, and both Wisconsin and Michigan State. If Purdue can somehow glean just three wins out of that opening stretch it could be in a very good spot for a bowl game going into the final four.

Northwestern was in a lot of close games last year, but it enters this season with an unproven quarterback and linebackers. Those are only the two most important areas on the field when it comes to Big Ten football. For the first time in a decade Purdue looks to have live, competent linebackers, while the quarterback situation is less certain, but potentially better than Northwestern's.

This is definitely a game Purdue could win. There is nothing that stands out as insurmountable about the Wildcats. Of course, I thought that last season and they kicked the living crap out of Purdue. This is a team that has kind of dominated the recent series and won a number of games against the Boilers mostly because we turned the ball over a ton. Playing in Evanston in November is never fun, either.

Prediction:

Cautiously, I am going to go with a Purdue win. I am starting to believe in this team just a little. Talk to me again in November, however, and I could have a different tune. Purdue 24, Northwestern 21