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Know thy Opponent 2017: Northwestern Wildcats

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Northwestern might just be the best in the West

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Since I am going on vacation in about a week I am trying to get these opponent previews done before I leave. That means we get two this week after Illinois yesterday. By the time Purdue gets to Northwestern in mid-November we will finally have an idea of what Jeff Brohm can do. People are talking about how brutal the schedule is, but if Brohm can get improvement out of what is left of Hazell’s players and contributions from the guys he has brought in we might have something. Remember: This team saw dramatic improvement under Gerad Parker in the last six games last year. Yes, it still lost all six, but for the most part it at least put up a fight and looked prepared as opposed to getting run over from the get-go like against Cincinnati, Maryland, and Iowa.

By the Northwestern game there could still be something to play for. People are griping about the difficulty of the schedule, but Missouri is not that daunting of a road trip. Sure, Purdue doesn’t stand much of a chance against Louisville, Michigan, or Wisconsin, but and improved Purdue might be able to surprise in the other games. Also, Illinois and Rutgers were pretty bad last year. Northwestern is a team that was only 7-6 a year ago and lost to an FCS team. Yes, they ended up blowing out Purdue in the second half, but two years ago Purdue gave them quite a game in Evanston.

Northwestern Wildcats

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

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 (77-62 in 12th year at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats:

Last year was a rough start for Northwestern. They lost to Western Michigan and FCS Illinois State by 3 points total to start 0-2. A win over Duke salvaged something out of the non-conference, but in conference play they did quite well. Wins over Iowa, Michigan State, and Indiana had them at 3-1 at one points before they narrowly lost at Ohio State by 4. They also took care of business against Purdue and Illinois. That was good enough for a second straight bowl bid, and just their second bowl win of the last seven decades. Sure, it was a step back from a 10-wins season in 2015, but Northwestern is always graded on a bit of a curve.

The Wildcats should at least be a bowl team again this year. With a little luck they could contend for the Big Ten West title too. They have a ton of experience returning, especially at key positions. They have to go to Wisconsin and Nebraska, but if they can get one of those and beat Penn State at home this team could definitely make it to Indianapolis.

Northwestern Offense

The Wildcats might have the most experience returning on offense of any team in the Big Ten. Their quarterback is a two-year starter. Their running back is going for his 4th straight 1,000 yard season. Three of their top four receivers are back and almost the entire offensive line returns. What’s more, they are getting talented transfers in Jalen Brown and Trey Klock from Oregon and Georgia Tech, respectively.

It starts with Clayton Thorson, who threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns last season against 9 interceptions. For good measure he ran for five touchdowns as well. He is not a scrambling quarterback with only 98 rushing yards, but he can move if necessary.

It won’t be that necessary with Justin Jackson in the backfield. Jackson ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago, bringing his career total to 4,129 yards and 30 TDs. He was good for 127 yards and 2 scores against Purdue last season, in 2015 he had 116 yards and a score, and as a freshman in 2014 he had 147 yards and two scores. This guy has been Wisconsin-esque against us in his career. For good measure Purdue gave up 119 yards to John Moten IV, his backup last season. By the time Purdue plays the Wildcats Jackson will have the Northwestern career rushing record, as he needs just 256 yards.

At receiver Austin Carr is gone after a 1,200 yard, 12 TD season, but Flynn Nagel (40-447-2) and Garrett Dickerson (34-318-5) are back. The addition of Jalen Brown will only help. He had 19 receptions for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns at Oregon last season. Northwestern can probably run or pass equally well.

Northwestern Defense

Last year Northwestern’s defense was okay. It gave up 22.2 points per game, 139.2 yards on the ground, and 265.2 through the air. Those are respectable numbers and enough to at least keep them in games. Xavier Washington and Joe Gaziano are two pretty good defensive linemen that have 4.5 sacks last season. They will need to step up in production after Ifeadi Odenigbo left following a 10 sack season.

At linebacker Brett Walsh and Nate Hall are two solid linebackers to build around. Hall had 73 tackles last season, 6 of them for loss. The departure of Anthony Walker Jr. will hurt, however. He had more than 100 tackles a season ago, 10 of them for loss, with 2 sacks and an interception.

In the secondary Godwin Igwebuike led the team in tackles as a safety that was all over the field. He had 108 tackles, 6 for loss, and two interceptions. That was good enough to be a Second Team all-Big Ten selection, and this year he could be a first teamer. Kyle Quiero also brings experience with 53 tackles and 2 interceptions at the other safety spot. Montre Hartage is an excellent cornerback that had five interceptions and 9 pass breakups to go with 60 tackles.

Overall this defense is going to be good. There really is not a weakness in the secondary, so if the front seven can generate pressure the defense will be even better.

Northwestern Special Teams

One of the biggest setbacks for Northwestern is Solomon Vault, who was lost for the season with a knee injury after he has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career. He is a major weapon that helped the Wildcats in the field position game at more than 24 yards per kick return on average. Nagel handled punt return duties and probably will again after averaging 6.6 yards per return.

The Wildcats are also breaking in a new kicker, but Charlie Kuhbander is one of the best freshman kickers in the country. He was even a three-star prospect, which is rare. Hunter Niswander handled punting duties and averaged 41.3 yards per punt.

Game Outlook

This is probably going to be a rough one. Northwestern has almost everyone back and they won at Purdue with ease last season. Now Purdue has to go to Evanston. Ryan Field is not an extremely difficult home field to play at, but the Wildcats are solid and have a running back approaching 5,000 yards in his career. They have an experienced quarterback and they are a smart, patient team. That’s going to be tough to overcome.

The Wildcats should be a contender in the West. Since they only play Minnesota and Illinois after this game they will also know if they have a shot at winning the division too. I don’t see them tripping up at home against Purdue if they still have a chance to win the West.

Way-too-early Prediction

The Wildcats are good. Purdue managed to hand with them for a half last season but got wiped out in the second half as Jackson and Moten ran wild. That makes this one a very tough one to win. Northwestern 38, Purdue 21