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Purdue at Northwestern Preview

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Purdue has not beaten a ranked team in 6 years, but has a chance to Saturday night.

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NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

If Purdue is going to reach a bowl game in 2017 it likely hinges on this game. The math is there. We need two wins in the last three games, and one in the next two sets up what should be a high stakes, winner take bowl bid Bucket game at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 25th. Even with losses in the next two games, a win over Indiana and a 5-7 finish would be a nice coda on a successful season in terms of growth from the Hazell era.

But we’re looking for more.

I know it won’t be easy because both Northwestern and Iowa are decent teams playing good football right now, but Purdue’s best chance at stealing a road game likely comes this weekend. Northwestern does not present as intimidating of a road environment as Iowa City. Tickets can be had for as little as $7 apiece, so Purdue can have a nice little crowd there for not a lot of money. The Boilers are also entering with a little more confidence after beating Illinois.

Of course, confidence is not in short supply in Evanston. The Wildcats have won an FCS record three straight games in overtime. They have played five total overtimes the last three weeks and knocked off Iowa (who just handed it to Ohio State) and Michigan State (Possibly the surprise winner in the East). They were one point better than Purdue was in regulation against Nebraska, and that point led to another overtime win last week. If Purdue is a handful of plays from 6-3 or even better, the Wildcats are a handful of plays in their favor from 3-6.

Northwestern Wildcats

2016 Record: 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten West

2017 Record: 6-3, 4-2

Bowl Result: Beat Pittsburgh 31-24 in Pinstripe Bowl

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-30-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 45-17 at Purdue on 11/12/2016

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (83-65 in 12th year at Northwestern)

Northwestern is at it again with the wild finishes. They started the season slow by struggling with lowly Nevada and losing by 24 at Duke. After dropping consecutive games to Wisconsin and Penn State they have reeled off four straight wins over Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State, and Nebraska. None of them have been cheap wins, either. It has gotten them to No. 25 in the college football playoff rankings, which means that a Purdue victory would be its first over a ranked opponent since 2011 when we beat a fading Illinois team that was No. 24, but it was their second of eventually six straight losses.

Statistically, Northwestern is near the middle of the conference in most categories. They are 6th in scoring at 28 points per game, 9th in defense at 24.2 points given up, 4th in total offense at 407 yards per game, and 10th in total defense at 383 yards given up. Purdue has been the slightly better defensive team by most states, but Northwestern has been the slightly better offensive team. That should make for a fairly even matchup. They are even close in turnover margin where Purdue is +2 and Northwestern is even.

Who to Watch on Offense

Justin Jackson – RB – Overall, Northwestern ranks 11th in the conference at just 139.3 yards per game on the ground. They still have one of the best and most experienced running backs in the league. Jackson is currently 5th in rushing at 798 yards and 8 touchdowns. With 73 yards against Purdue he would become the 23rd player at the FBS level to rush for 5,000 yards in his career, and impressive feat for the senior. He has been over 1,100 yards in each of the previous three seasons and he now has 38 career touchdowns. By the time he is done he will own virtually every Northwestern rushing record and he has a very good chance of finishing in the top ten all-time in rushing, a spot currently held by LaDanian Tomlinson at 5,387 yards. He has the most rushing yards of any active player. If he reaches 5,300 yards he will be third all-time in Big Ten history.

Clayton Thorson – QB – The Northwestern passing game has really been clicking of late, and Thorson is now 4th in the conference with 2,287 yards passing. He only has 10 TDs to 11 interceptions, but he is moving the football. Thorson is just two weeks from throwing for 356 yards and 2 TDs against a good Michigan State defense, so he will definitely test Purdue’s secondary. He also has 7 rushing TDs, but just 20 total yards rushing. That doesn’t mean he can’t run though. Two years ago he had 397 yards rushing.

Bennett Skowronek – WR – Northwestern spreads the ball around very effectively, but Skowronek leads the team with 32 receptions for 427 yards and 3 TDs. Macan Wilson, Flynn Nagel, and Garrett Dickerson also get in on the action. Don’t forget Jackson out of the backfield, either, as he has 35 receptions for 240 yards.

Who to Watch on Defense

Paddy Fisher – LB – Fisher is off to a great start to his career. The redshirt freshman is second in the Big Ten with 88 tackles behind Iowa’s Josey Jewell. He also has six tackles for loss, but no sacks.

Joe Gaziano – DL – Another one of the Big Ten’s best, Gaziano is third in the conference with six sacks through nine games. Combined with Nate Hall, the two have been impressive up front with 18 total tackles for loss.

Kyle Queiro – S – Queiro has been one of the best defensive backs in the conference so far. He has a team high three interceptions, 10 passes defensed, and he has added 48 total tackles. As a team, Northwestern has intercepted nine passes, but Purdue is on a run of no interceptions since the Rutgers game.

Godwin Igwebuike – S – Igebuike was a Second Team all-conference selection last season and is having another good year this year. He is second on the team in tackles with 59, two interceptions, and 7 pass breakups. With Queiro, the duo covers the middle of the field about as well as anyone.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Riley Lee – KR, PR – While he has not taken one back all the way, Lee is a dangerous returner averaging 7.25 yards per punt. Purdue is one of the worst teams in the conference at returning punts, so this is an advantage.

Charlie Kuhbander – K – Kuhbander has been accurate, but has not had the most range at kicker. He is 9 of 11 on field goal attempts, but only has a long of 40 yards.

Game Outlook

On paper, this looks close. Unfortunately, Northwestern has been the team that has made the plays necessary to win of late and Purdue has not. That’s why they have won three straight in overtime and why Purdue lost to Nebraska and Rutgers by three total points. In terms of common opponents the teams have had almost identical results. Purdue lost to Wisconsin by 8 and Northwestern lost by 9. Purdue lost to Nebraska by 1 and Northwestern beat them in overtime. You can even go back to last season, where Purdue beat a bad Nevada team 24-14 and this year Northwestern beat a bad Nevada team 31-20.

That tells me this game should be close. The Wildcats have a decent, but not outstanding offense and Purdue has a decent, but not outstanding defense. What it comes down to is the whole “Knows how to win” thing. Northwestern has done that three straight weeks. Purdue has not.

It should be a fun game though. If Purdue can get Da’Wan Hunte and T.J. McCollum back that would be a very nice boost. Purdue also needs to win the turnover battle. After causing a wealth of turnovers early in the season they have been sparse of late. In the last three games Purdue has managed just a single interception by Jacob Theineman, and that was last week against Illinois.

I think Purdue keeps this close. We have done that all year. Will we make enough plays to actually win? That’s the big question.