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Know Thy Opponent 2018: Northwestern Wildcats

Purdue will open the 2018 at home against a Big Ten opponent.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

We’re 10 weeks away from kickoff, so it is once again time for a summer first look at our 12 football opponents. For the first time in ages it does not seem like a chore, either! There is genuine excitement around Purdue football. Sure, there was excitement in the first two Danny Hope years, but it fizzled. There was excitement that 2013 would be different, but what followed was the worst season in school history. Things never got better, and last year a tough schedule and perceived lack of talent meant we were just hoping for four wins somewhere.

Instead, we got 7-6, a bowl win, the Bucket came home, and Purdue was competitive in every game.

To be honest, it was just a joy last season to be in every game. So many times under Hazell games were over by halftime (if not earlier). When Purdue took a ranked Louisville to the wire in Indianapolis to start last season it was fun just to be in a game.

Now expectations are raised. The 2018 season will start at home on a Thursday night as one of the first possible games of the entire college football season. It will be our first chance to show our appreciation for last year’s bowl win. Since it is a conference game, it is also a chance to make an early statement within the Big Ten.

And maybe, just maybe, GameDay will be there.

Northwestern Wildcats

2017 Record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Beat Kentucky 24-23 in Music City Bowl

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-31-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 23-13 at Northwestern on 11/11/2017

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (77-62 in 12th year at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats:

Last year was an excellent season for the Wildcats. The lone losses were to Duke on the road, then consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Penn State that knocked them out of the Big Ten race early. In mid-October the Wildcats were 2-3 and one of their wins was an ugly one over Nevada. They then ripped off 8 straight to close the season on one of the longest winning streaks in America. That included a 24-23 bowl win over Kentucky where they stopped a game-winning 2-point conversion with 37 seconds left.

When they played Purdue in November it was one of the few games where Purdue was never really in it. On a cold, windy night in Evanston the Boilers fell behind 20-0 midway through the third quarter before finally getting on the board with a Jarrett Burgess touchdown catch. Purdue had missed opportunities in the first half with a turnover on downs in Northwestern territory and a missed field goal. They also had a second turnover on downs at the Northwestern 4 yard line. We made it close in the end, but the 23-13 final score was mostly cosmetic because Northwestern controlled the game despite 376 yards passing from Elijah Sindelar and Joe Schopper completing a pass to longsnapper Ben Makowski.

Northwestern lost some key pieces in the offseason, but they should still be a strong team. While Wisconsin is still the class of the West, the winner of this game will make an early statement as a top challenger to the Badgers.

Northwestern Offense

The Wildcats were able to successfully land Hunter Johnson at quarterback, but he must sit out this season before taking over in 2019. The bigger question will be regarding quarterback Clayton Thorson. While Sindlear has been fully cleared after his torn ACL, thorson’s status for the season opener is up in the air after injuring his knee in the bowl game. Thorson is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference. He has more than 7,500 career yards passing and 44 touchdowns. He has also rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.

If he can’t go against Purdue the competition is wide open. T.J. Green is the son of former Indiana quarterback Trent Green and the only one of three options (between him, Aiden Smith, and Andrew Marty) that has game experience. He completed one pass for five yards last season.

All-time running back Justin Jackson is gone after rushing for more than 5,000 yards in his four year career. He had a big game against Purdue with 127 yards and 2 TDs in 2016, but he had big games against almost everyone. Jeremy Larkin, who had 510 yards and 5 TDs as Jackson’s backup last year, will likely be the primary back.

Most of the top receivers are back too. Bennett Skowronek (45-644-5) and Flynn Nagel (48-489-2) were the top two receivers past season. If Thorson is out his replacement will at least have reliable replacements. Cameron Green will be reliable as their superback too.

Northwestern struggled last season because it took a while for the offensive line to come together. It gave up 31 sacks overall, but returns four upperclassmen. Tommy Doles, J.B. Butler, Blake Hance, and Rashawn Slater all return to provide experience. Brad North needs to be replaced at center though.

Northwestern Defense

Overall, the defense was pretty good last season. It gave up 20 points per game and was stout against the run at just 89 yards given up per game. In the Purdue game we struggled to get any ground game going. We finished with only 40 yards on 22 carries, and 27 of those yards came on two carries from D.J. Knox and Terry Wright. The defensive line was also good at getting pressure with 32 sacks. Sindelar was sacked three times, which is still pretty good when you consider he was playing on a torn ACL.

Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall are solid linebackers to build around. Fisher had 113 tackles, 9 for loss, 4 forced fumbles, and an interception. Hall was second on the team in tackles with 79 and he got into the backfield regularly with five sacks. He intercepted a pair of passes as well.

Up front Sam Miller, Joe Gaziano, Jordan Thompson, and Alex Miller provide an experienced front four. Gaziano and Sam Miller were pretty good with a combined 14.5 sacks on the ends. Thompson had four sacks from his tackle spot. They form a group that still should be pretty good again the run.

Where Purdue fans should be excited is when looking at Northwestern’s secondary. Montrae Hartage and Trae Williams are back at the corner spots and Hartage had three interceptions with 7 pass breakups last year. Both safety spots need to be replaced, however. Since Sindelar had a big game against them in the cold last year Purdue should have an advantage in the warmer weather of late August.

Northwestern Special Teams

Jeff Brohm has a personal connection with Northwestern’s new punter. Jake Collins punted for Borhm at Western Kentucky, but graduated after last season and has now transferred to Northwestern. Charlie Kuhbander was solid at placekicking last year by going 13 of 16, but his long was only 40 yards. There was not much of a return game to speak of on either punts or kickoffs.

Game Outlook

It is the return of football! We’re playing a Thursday night game and we might even have a sellout as people try to get an early start on the long weekend. To me, the sheer excitement factor is a big thing for Purdue. It has been YEARS since we have been this positive going into a season. Now we get a pretty good team at home in an attempt to carry that excitement over. We have a difficult, but manageable schedule and a win over Northwestern can lead to a really big start. How big? Well, the possibility of being 6-0 and welcoming Ohio State for Purdue Harbor 2 is on the table.

Of course, we have questions of our own. Who will start at corner? How do we get the same defensive production after losing some key pieces? How will exciting new players like Rondale Moore fir in? Do we have a Fully Armed and Operational Brohmfense?

The nice thing is that for the first time in ages, we can rest knowing we have a coaching staff that can actually figure some of this stuff out. Before last season the offensive line and run defense were glaring weaknesses for years. They fixed them both in a single season. How can you not be excited after that?

Way-too-early Prediction

I am fully on board for optimism again. I think we’re going to have an electric night game atmosphere and a lot of fun. If Thorson can’t go I really think Purdue has a big advantage. I think we start off with a big conference win. Purdue 31, Northwestern 24