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Know Thy Opponent 2019: Northwestern Wildcats

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The defending West Division champs will be good again in 2019.

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

Last year’s season opener against Northwestern was the first of a series of frustrating home losses that prevented Purdue’s season from going from good to great. The Boilers fell behind early 14-0, then Rondale Moore made his debut with two first quarter touchdowns. The Wildcats eventually moved back in front 31-17 at halftime and were shutout in the second half, but Purdue managed just 10 more points and lost 31-27 thanks to a late dumb penalty after making a key third down stop.

While that penalty officially ended the game, it is not like Purdue didn’t have its chances. Spencer Evans kicked an early fourth quarter field goal for the final margin, but Purdue had two possessions after that kick trailing only by four. It gained a total of five yards in six plays while punting twice.

Really, the Northwestern game was a microcosm of Purdue’s season. It was good, but we were close to so much more. Northwestern went on to win the Big Ten West with narrow wins over Nebraska, Rutgers, and Iowa. Purdue lost the Big Ten West with narrow losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. If Purdue is going to turn the tables and win the West in 2019 it will have to finally end a near decade long streak of futility against Northwestern.

Northwestern Wildcats

2018 Record: 9-5, 8-1 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: Beat Utah 31-20 in Holiday Bowl

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 50-32-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 31-27 at Purdue on 8/30/2018

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (96-70 in 14thyear at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats

It is rare that a team goes 0-3 against their non-conference slate, but still wins its division. That’s what Northwestern did, however. They were a perfect 6-0 against the Big Ten West (thus entering this year having won 11 straight against divisional opponents) and beat Rutgers and Michigan State to win the West. It was an impressive run, making up for a bizarre non-conference loss to Akron.

Even with the loss to that up and coming program from Columbus in the Big Ten Championship it was a great year for Northwestern. They won at least 9 games for the third time in four seasons, got a third straight bowl win, and are now a really good 15-3 in the conference regular season the last two years. They enter this season with a ton of momentum and as one of the favorites in the West.

Northwestern Offense

Normally there is a bit of a regression offensively when a team loses a long-time starter at quarterback, but with Clayton Thorsen gone former 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson is ready to step in. Johnson played sparingly as a true freshman at Clemson in 2017, going 21 of 27 for 234 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT, but left when Trevor Lawrence came in to seize the job. He sat out last season due to transfer rules, but enters this season with high expectations.

Johnson will have plenty of targets to throw to as well. Bennett Skowronek caught 45 passes for 562 yards and 3 TDs a year ago. Kyric McGowan will have a larger role after catching 16 passes for 283 yards and two scores, as will JJ Jefferson (10-181-2). Trey Pugh and Carlie Mangieri are expected to compete for the coveted Superback role as well.

Northwestern also returns its top running back in Isaiah Bowser, who ran for 866 yards and 6 touchdowns. Jeremy Larkin, who ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue, later had to retire due to a spinal condition. That leaves John Moten IV (204 yards, 3 TDs) as the No. 2 man, and he is a solid one.

The offensive line has a long way to go and was a reason that Northwestern was only 12thoffensively in the conference last year. The Wildcats gave up the most sacks in the Big Ten and lost three starters to boot. Jared Thomas and Rashawn Slater are the two returning starters, but Northwestern mostly got the job done defensively last year.

Northwestern Defense

Northwestern averaged just over 24 points per game last season, but had one of the league’s better defenses in giving up just over 23 per game. It could be even better this year with nine starters coming back. Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are back at linebacker and both had more than 100 tackles a season ago. Each also had an interception and they were all over the field. Chris Bergin will join them with over 50 tackles in his own right.

Joe Gaziano was the top pass rusher with 7.5 sacks and should have another good season. Samdup Miller (53 tackles) and Alex Miller will join him up front to form a smaller, but productive defensive line. It is a line that will thrive more on quickness than brute strength.

In the secondary JR Pace will lead a group of three returning starters. Pace had 82 tackles and a team high four interceptions to make him a very good defensive back. Travis Whitlock and Trae Williams also bring a wealth of experience back in the defensive backfield. This is a team with a ton of experience back on defense, so they can keep the score while the offense gets its feet wet behind a new line.

Northwestern Special Teams

It was a bit of a strange year for Northwestern at kicker, as three different players attempted field goals. Drew Luckenbaugh, Jake Collins, and Charlie Kuhbander all had at least three attempts, with Kuhbander trying the most. He was 5 of 9 with a long of 45 yards. Overall, Northwestern was 10 of 16 on field goals. Collins also served as the punter, averaging 40.5 yards per kick. He was a graduate transfer, however, and is gone.

In the return game Kyric McGowan will handle kickoff returns and Riley Lees will take punt returns. Both were pretty average last year as the 3.4 rads of return men (Not great, but not terrible).

Game Outlook

Purdue has struggled with Northwestern of late, losing five in a row to them for the first time in the history of the series. They have also won 7 of 8 and 9 of the last 12 dating back to 2004. That accounts for more than 25% of their wins in the series. Purdue’s offense has struggled in all five losses, two. Last year was the only time since 2007 we have scored more than 25 points against the Wildcats.

Northwestern is going to have a stout defense again, but Purdue’s offense could be improved if it can solve its offensive line questions. Both teams also have tough, but manageable schedules. There is a decent chance this could be a critical game to decide the Big Ten West, but it is hard to say because it is so late in the season.

Way-too-Early Prediction

This is the first of two tough road games in November for Purdue before the season finale at home against Indiana. Can the Boilers finally break their hex against Northwestern? If Purdue is having a good year it could be a partisan crowd in our favor since Northwestern fans are too busy with their cell phones and rock music. This is still a very tough team to beat anywhere, however. Northwestern 27, Purdue 24