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#23 Northwestern at Purdue Preview

The lead in the B1G West is on the line.

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

And so this weird season marches on. After an unexpected bye week Purdue faces perhaps the highest stakes it has faced in a game since… 2004? Arguably Purdue still had a shot at the Big Ten West after thumping Ohio State in 2018, but it ultimately did not matter as Northwestern went 8-1 and won the division. They already had the tiebreaker over Purdue too, so even if we had won the table it would not have mattered.

The Boilers have not started a season 3-0 since starting the 2007 season 5-0. They have not started a Big Ten campaign 3-0 since 2003. The 2004 season seems to be the likely candidate for the last time we had such high stakes, as that is the infamous Fumble game vs. Wisconsin. Even then, Purdue was only 2-0 in conference play. You may need to look at 2003, when Purdue was 8-2 and 5-1 in the Big Ten headed to Ohio State with a chance at the Big Ten title and a BCS bowl bid on the line.

That is kind of what we face this weekend. A victory over No. 23 Northwestern carries some pretty high stakes. It moves Purdue to 3-0 overall and all the wins would be against divisional opponents. Since Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota each have at least two losses already it is now a three team race for the division crown. Wisconsin and Northwestern still must face each other, so one of them is getting a loss. Purdue will NOT face Wisconsin, and if the Badgers are forced to miss another game, whether through fault of their own or their opponent, they cannot make the league title game. The Badgers also must face a red hot Indiana team in a few weeks. A Purdue victory gives us the tiebreaker over the Wildcats and given that we are receiving votes in the AP and coaches poll it could mean a top 25 ranking.

That top 25 ranking is also something that has not occurred since September 30, 2007. Purdue was 5-0 before facing Ohio State that week. The Buckeyes earned a rare win in West Lafayette and have not been back in the AP Poll in the 216 polls since. That is the longest active streak among Power 5 conference teams and the 10th longest active streak for ANY team that has ever been in the AP top 25. Ball State, Kansas, Central Michigan, Rutgers, Kent State, San Jose State, Troy, Temple, and UConn have all been in the top 25 since Purdue last made it.

So yeah, Saturday night is a big game.

Northwestern Wildcats

2019 Record: (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten West)

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 51-32-1

Last Purdue win: 24-22 at Northwestern on 11/9/2019

Last Northwestern win: 24-6 at Purdue on 8/30/2018

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (102-79 in 15th season at Northwestern)

2020 so far for Northwestern

So far it looks like we get “Good Northwestern” this year. The Wildcats are off to a hot 3-0 start after going just 3-9 last season and looking generally abysmal on offense. At one point last season they went a Hazellian three straight games without a touchdown before nearly beating Purdue. Thankfully, J.D. Dellinger’s game-winning field goal was the difference, especially after their own late field goal that would have put them up 4 doinked off the upright.

What has impressed me the most this year is Northwestern’s defense. Given what Taulia Tagovailoa has done the last two weeks for Maryland it is amazing that the Wildcats held the Terrapins to three points in a week one 43-4 blowout. The 43 points in that game were more points than Northwestern scored in its first six conference games combined last year.

The defense has also been big the last two weeks. After spotting Iowa a 17-0 leads thanks to turnovers and mistakes in week 2 the Wildcats gave up only a long field goal in the final three quarters. Last week against Nebraska they pitched a second half shutout. Through three games Northwestern have yet to give up a single point in the second half.

Who to Watch on Offense

Peyton Ramsey – QB – That man is back. Seeing the writing on the wall with Michael Penix Jr. coming back from injury in Bloomington Ramsey transferred to Northwestern and has settled the quarterback situation. When we last saw him he threw for 337 yards and 3 TDs with 42 yards and another two scores on the ground in last year 44-41 double OT Bucket game win. In 2018’s loss to Purdue he threw for 345 yards and TD with 37 yards and a rushing TD. So far this season he has 511 yards through the air and 3 TDs against 3 INTs with 101 on the ground and a TD, but he has been a pain in our ass for two seasons running.

Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman – WR – Both he and Kyric McGowan have been Ramsey’s top two targets this year. They have combined for 21 receptions for 211 yards, but neither has found the end zone. Overall, the Wildcat offense is not explosive, but it has done enough to win with a good defense. They rate 13th in passing in the conference at only 170.3 yards per game.

Drake Anderson – RB – Purdue should definitely be concerned about the running game. Northwestern is fourth in the league in rushing at 205.3 yards per game and Purdue is 11th against the run in giving up 186 yards on the ground. Both Iowa and Illinois had a lot of success in gashing our defense for big gains. Northwestern’s run game is so far better than theirs. Anderson leads them with 193 yards and 2 TDs and Isaiah Bowser keeps him fresh with 155 yards and a TD. Let’s not forget Ramsey can also run the ball. Overall Northwestern has eight rushing touchdowns, good for second in the league only behind Minnesota.

Who to Watch on Defense

This will be a matchup of strength against strength as Purdue has the conference’s No. 1 passing offense at 326 yards per game while Northwestern is the No. 2 passing defense at 192 yards per game. Those numbers are skewed because technically Wisconsin is No. 1 at 87 yards per game, but that represents one game against possibly the worst team in the league. They also cause a lot of turnovers with six interceptions already.

The run defense is also pretty good, ranking third at 121.7 yards per game. Does Zander Horvath keep up his surprisingly strong start? He has been virtual all of Purdue’s running game, so does someone else get a few carries?

Paddy Fisher – LB – Fisher is simply one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. At 6’4” 240 pounds he brings great size to the position and he already has 28 tackles on the year. He has had a pair of 100 tackle season and is well on his way to a 400 tackle career depending on how the rest of this season plays out.

Blake Gallagher – LB – Fisher is so good because Gallagher is really good along with him. Both guys are seniors and 1-2 on the team in tackles. Fisher has 29 already and Gallagher is right behind at 28. Combined with Chris Bergin’s 27 the Wildcats have the most productive trio of linebackers in the conference. Gallagher also had the game-sealing interception against Iowa.

Brandon Joseph – DB – The redshirt freshman has had an excellent season in the secondary so far. He has 17 tackles and a team high three interceptions. Two of his picks came against Iowa, the first setting up Northwestern’s first touchdown.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Charlie Kuhbander – K – Kuhbander has been reliable in his career, going 3 of 4 on field goals this season and 10 of 10 on extra points. The senior was 10 of 14 las year, but his miss against Purdue was huge. If he makes that Purdue needs a touchdown on its final drive.

Derek Adams – P – Purdue struggled big time in the punting game against Illinois, so Adams at 43 yards per game is a huge difference maker there. He has downed 7 of his 14 punts inside the 20.

Game Outlook

Can Purdue actually go to 3-0 and be in a great spot to win the division? A Boiler really opens the door to a lot. It could even mean 6-0 before facing Indiana in (gasp) DOUBLE BUCKET GAMES FOR THE BIG TEN TITLE. As Purdue fans we have learned to not get too confident though. We always know the “other shoe” is there. Yes, Purdue is 2-0, but it needed a costly Iowa fumble and a late defensive red zone stand against Illinois to get there. The Illinois game laid bare a lot of issues that have been around for a while. Instead of cruising to victory up three scores against a bad opponent we had to hold on for dear life.

Still, there are counterarguments there. Purdue took its lead against Iowa and actually got the defensive stop to win the game. That happens about as often as Haley’s Comet coming around. It had a near Nevada-like collapse against Illinois, but this year it was able to hold strong and avoid disaster. In back to back weeks now the defense has made winning plays in the final two minutes.

That’s what this game comes down to. Purdue was very, very sloppy with turnovers and penalties against Illinois and it kept them in the game. Once George Karlaftis went out the pass rush was non-existent too. He is such a disruptive force all by himself that it allowed the Illini to settle in a bit. Purdue has to limit its mistakes like it did against Iowa. If it is as sloppy as it was against Illinois we’re in trouble.

There is also Rondale lurking. There is not solid information on whether or not he will play this week, but there is at least a chance. The last time we saw him against Northwestern he went absolutely nuts for more than 300 total yards. Now he gets to face them with David Bell. I will be quite honest: if we don’t see Rondale coming off of a bye week I have my doubts we will ever see him play in a Purdue uniform again, but if he does come back… what a team to come back against.