Tomorrow night the 2018 Purdue football season begins with more momentum than we have had in a decade. On paper, the 2017 season was pretty modest. Purdue went 7-6, won a mid-tier bowl game, lost some close games, won some close games, beat some bad teams, beat a few good teams, and was generally mediocre in terms of record.
Of course, this is all without context. Under Darrell Hazell the Boilers often would have needed improvement just to be called moribund. With Jeff Brohm we had cautious optimism. We expected to be blown out in the opener because Louisville had the reigning Heisman winner. We hoped to scrape together four wins and call it progress with games against Ohio, Rutgers, Illinois, and Indiana. Making a bowl game was considered laughable.
Then the season happened.
Right from the start Purdue football was completely different and, dare I say it, fun again. We pushed Louisville to the brink in game 1 and if not for a few questionable calls could have even won. We won comfortably over an Ohio team that went on to win nine games. We kicked the living crap out of Missouri and made them quit on their home field. Losses to Rutgers and Nebraska by three total points seemed to put the brakes on any bowl talk, but Purdue won four of its last five, including the final three with a quarterback playing on a torn ACL because otherwise we would be throwing a true freshman to the wolves.
It is the most momentum Purdue has had in a decade. We started the 2007 season 5-0 against a cast of nobodies, but since then we have had only two streaks of even as many as three wins. We won the final three games in 2012 against Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana (combined record, 10-26) to squeeze into a contractually obligated bowl. We didn’t win three games in a row until Iowa-Indiana-Arizona (combined record 20-18) to close last season.
Can Purdue carry that momentum forward? We have seen it here in the offseason. Since that December win over Arizona in Santa Clara Jeff Brohm has signed a contract extension and has lined up the best Purdue recruiting class since the various recruiting services have been doing rankings. Those guys still need to sign in December and won’t be here until next fall, but in the interim we have the 2018 season. It is one of opportunity. The schedule is tougher, but I only view three games (Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State) as ones where Purdue wins would be utterly shocking. On the other hand, only games against Eastern Michigan and Illinois are ones that are anywhere close to “lock” territory.
The inexperience of the defense and receiving corps are major factors this year, but there are still some factors in our favor. Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska all have quarterback situations that are uncertain at best while we sit with a pair of solid to very good QBs. Purdue opens with four straight home games, two of which should have a great crowd in a night atmosphere on a big stage. Missouri and Iowa, two teams Purdue surprised on the road last year, come to West Lafayette. Indiana is still Indiana.
That is what makes tomorrow night so intriguing. Northwestern, the only team to beat Purdue in the last five games, comes to town. They are a good team that has 10-win seasons in two of the last three years. It is an early opportunity to continue that positive momentum and make an early statement in the Big Ten West race. With a victory Purdue stakes a claim as the top challenger to the behemoth that is Wisconsin.
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)
Who to Watch on Offense
Clayton Thorson – QB – I am pretty sure Thorson is going to start and InsideNU agrees. They view him as starting a legacy-defining season this year. Last season he threw for 2,844 yards and 15 TDs against 12 interceptions and ran for 8 more scores. How much will his scrambling ability be limited? Last season he had a solid game against Purdue, but the pass rush getting to him will be critical.
Jeremy Larkin – RB – With Justin Jackson gone after rushing for more than 5,000 yards in his career Larkin steps in as the featured back. As a freshman last season he ran for 503 yards and 5 TDs, which was excellent as a backup. Against Purdue he had 41 yards on six carries. Like most Northwestern backs, he will be active out of the backfield.
Bennett Skowronek – WR – Last season Skowronek had a nice TD catch against Purdue in the 23-13 win. He finished the year with 45 receptions for 644 yards and 5 TDs. The 6’4” junior from Fort Wayne is a big target that will give us fits on the outside.
Flynn Nagel – WR – Nagel also had a good season last year with 48 receptions for 489 yards and 2 scores. He is smaller than Skowronek at 5’11”, but in the Purdue game the two combined for half of the Wildcats’ receptions.
Who to Watch on Defense
Paddy Fisher – LB – One of the Big Ten’s most productive linebackers, Fisher had a whopping 113 tackles last season. He had 9 for loss, forced four fumbles, and had an interception. Like our own Markus Bailey, he will be all over the field.
Nate Hall – LB – Hall was second on the team with 79 tackles and added five sacks as well. He is a tough player that has had a ton of success at Northwestern and has recovered from his own ACL injury. He has pretty much been an offseason rehab partner with Thorson.
Joe Gaziano and Sam Miller – DE – Purdue’s offensive line should be pretty good, but they will get an early test. These two combined for 14.5 sacks and Jordan Thompson added four more as an interior lineman. Purdue’s offensive line needs to hold up in this one and give the quarterback time to throw, because the Wildcats will be after him.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Jake Collins – P – Collins was coach Brohm’s punter at western Kentucky before transferring to Northwestern this year as a grad transfer. You know it is B1G when you have graduate transfer punters.
Charlie Kuhbander – K – He was solid at placekicking last year by going 13 of 16, but his long was only 40 yards.
I love that this game is at home. I think we’re going to have the best atmosphere we have had for a home game in some time. To me, that is going to make a huge difference. The players will naturally be excited for the start of the season, but under the lights with a big home crowd is going to take that up a level. To my knowledge Purdue has NEVER started the season with a night home game, let alone on Thursday night as the marquee game of the season’s opening night. As long as we handle the spotlight and the excitement doesn’t lead to mistakes I think we’ll do well.
I do expect a close game though. Northwestern has a good front seven, but the secondary is a little shaky. Purdue’s entire defense is untested, but I think it will play with a lot of emotion because of the crowd. I trust in Nick Holt to get this group going. They are a bunch of guys that sat last year waiting for their opportunity. This is a chance for it to pay off.
That’s where momentum comes in. Both teams have it right now, but there is real, live excitement around Purdue football for the first time in years. I think we can come out and win this game, setting the stage for another surprising season. Consider me on board all the way.