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Know thy Opponent 2016: Northwestern Wildcats

Purdue played the Wildcats hard in Evanston last season. Does that mean a turnaround this year in West Lafayette.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

For the past few years Purdue has not been good, but it has had a strange talent for challenging exceptionally good teams on their home fields. In Danny Hope's final year of 2012 it was Notre Dame and Ohio State. In 2013 it was a close 14-0 loss at Michigan State. Last season Purdue played a pair of 10-win teams, Northwestern and Michigan State, right to the end on the road.

If not for a home loss to Iowa last season he Wildcats would have been in the Big Ten Championship game. They didn't light things up offensively, but the defense was good and they accomplished the goal of "actually winning games" quite regularly. Even then, Purdue pushed them in Evanston until Markell Jones had his knee act up. Does that mean Purdue has a chance in 2016 at Ross-Ade Stadium? Well, maybe.

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Bowl result: Lost Outback Bowl 45-6 to Tennessee

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-29-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 11/14/2015 at Northwestern 21-14

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (70-56 in 11th season at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats:

The Wildcats had one of the more impressive non-conference victories in the country last year with a 16-6 season opening win over Stanford. That set the tone for an impressive defensive performance. The Wildcats gave up just 35 points in the first five games of the year in beating Stanford, Eastern Illinois, Duke, Ball State, and Minnesota. Of those five, it was 3-9 Ball State that gave them the best game. The Cards led 10-7 at halftime and only lost 24-19.

The 5-0 start gave way to the defense folding in losses to Michigan and Iowa. After giving up only 35 points in five games the Wildcats gave up 78 in the two losses. They recovered to win the next five games and reach a New Year's Day Bowl, but after getting outscored 78-10 by Michigan and Iowa their Big Ten title dreams were done.

Against Purdue we had another Shoop special where the offense did very little after a promising start and left our own defense to wilt. Purdue gave up an opening touchdown drive, but the Boilers responded immediately with a 68 yard TD pass from David Blough to Domonique Young. Northwestern led 14-7 at halftime after Traveon Henry intercepted Blough to give them a short field. Purdue was able to tie the game at 14-14 on the opening drive of the second half, but faced with more success the Shoopfense went as follows: Missed FG (the first attempt in six games), 3 and out, 3 and out, 3 and out, 3 and out. With a tie game Purdue didn't even gain a first down in its last four drives, gaining only 17 yards in 12 plays after the missed field goal. That made Justin Jackson's late TD more than enough to win.

Northwestern Offense

The Northwestern offense is basically the Justin Jackson show. The junior running back is one of the best in the country and he tallied and impressive 1,418 yards last season. He only had 5 touchdowns, however, as the offense itself generated only 24 total touchdowns. Basically, if Jackson was not moving the football no one was. Jackson had 116 yards and the game winning touchdown against Purdue, while Warren Long had two scores on an additional 52 yards.

For Northwestern to improve they need Clayton Thorson to show dramatic improvement in the passing game. Thorsen was a solid running as a freshman last year, racking up 542 yards and five scores, but his passing left much to be desired. He threw for only 1,522 yards and 7 TDs against 9 interceptions. Purdue held him to just 82 yards through the air in our game. He was also sacked 21 times. If he continues to struggle Purdue only has to worry about stopping Jackson.

The returning receivers do not have a ton of experience. Leading receiver Dan Vitale is gone, leaving Austin Carr the top returning player with 16 receptions for 302 yards and two scores. Vitale had half of the team's eight touchdown receptions, while Christian Jones (another departure) had two of the other four. Solomon Vault has returned to receiver, but there is not a lot of experience here at all.

The offensive line could also struggle as the top two players graduated. Eric Olson and Ian Park are the only two returning linemen with more than eight starts. A lot of players got some experience, however, as nine different players started at least one game. There are now four seniors up front, so if there is some consistency that should help the meager passing game.

Northwestern Defense

The Wildcats had an excellent defense last year, but Blough still had a decent day with 287 yards passing. It was only when Jones went down that they truly slammed the door against us. Much of their success came from a solid front four that was very good against the run. They gave up only 126.2 yards per game and just 192.77 yards through the air.

The two best linemen from that line are gone, and Deonte Gibson was the better of the two with a team high nine sacks. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Tyler Lancaster were both solid on the line and return with a good amount of experience. The Wildcats do need to find a way to replace Gibson and Dean Lowry, however. Lowry was a 4th round pick from Green Bay and was a Second Team all-B1G selection.

At linebacker Northwestern has one of the best in the conference in Anthony Walker. Last season he had 91.5 tackles and more than 20 were for a loss. He also added four sacks and an interception as he was often found where the ball was. Paired with Nate Hall and Jaylen Prater, he anchors a linebacking corps that will be more than good.

Three of the four previous starters also return in the secondary. Matthew Harris led the team with four interceptions at corner and he will be joined by Keith Watkins II. Harris also broke up 13 passes. Godwin Igwebuike and Keith Watkins II are also starters with year and the SB nation preview seems to think Igwebuike could be an all-Conference type of player.

Northwestern Special Teams

The Wildcats were up and down on special teams last year, but returning kicker jack Mitchell was at least accurate. He finished the year 16 of 19 on field goals, but was a curious 25 of 28 on PATs. He made up for a deplorable punting game that didn't even average 40 yards per punt.

Solomon Vault, however, was a dangerous kick returner with a pair of touchdowns and a 26.3 yard per return average. He makes up for Flynn Nagel, who somehow averaged -1 yard per punt return.

Game Outlook

This is a winnable game for Purdue under most normal circumstances. The Northwestern offense is not great and could be worse outside of Jackson. The defense is expected to regress a little. They were not impressive in beating the Boilers last season, but they did still win the game.

That is where "under most normal circumstances" comes into play. If Northwestern is to be a mediocre 6-6 as projected by Bill C. then those are the teams that blow Purdue out at home. It is incredibly frustrating to see teams like Northwestern come in where they have one dominant thing, in this case Jackson, and Purdue looks completely surprised by this fact. Part of the credit to Jackson is that he put up big numbers knowing that teams were gearing for him. Unfortunately, I have seen enough poor defense from Purdue to know that he is going for at least 150 yards in this game even if we stack eight guys in the box.

Way Too Early Prediction

The summer of negativity continues here. After three years of regression under Darrell Hazell I just don't trust Purdue even against offensively limited teams at home. That was called Virginia Tech last year and they hung half a hundred on us. It comes down to the opponent being so far ahead of the Boilers right now that I feel even a more even match on paper like Northwestern will lead to a blowout in favor of our opponent. Northwestern 24, Purdue 17