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Know Thy Opponent 2020: Northwestern Wildcats

Purdue finally broke a five game losing streak against the Wildcats in 2019.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Purdue finally ended a surprisingly long losing streak last season. The Boilers had lost five straight games to Northwestern, including the 2018 season opener that sent the Wildcats on to a surprise West Division title. Aidan O’Connell made good in his first career start, however, as J.D. Dellinger’s late field goal was the difference. It wasn’t a great Northwestern team to be sure, but it was a win.

That might be all we’re looking for in 2020. The goal is to return to a bowl game and have a step forward towards a big 2021 season. There are several games that fall into the category of “toss-up.” Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana come to mind there, with Air Force, Nebraska, and Boston College also being toss-up games. Since Purdue managed to win this game a year ago I do feel pretty good about winning it at home

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: 31-27 at Purdue on 8/30/2018

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (99-79 in 15th year at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats

After going 9-5 with a Big Ten West title and Holiday Bowl win in 2018 it is safe to call the 2019 season a disappointment in Evanston. The offense was mostly punchless in losing the first 8 games of conference play. They were held to 10 points or less five times in the first eight games, and that won’t win too many. There was a bit of a breakout in the last four, however, as they scored 22 against Purdue, 45 against UMass, 22 against Minnesota, and 29 against Illinois.

Against UMass things really worked, and the season finale against Illinois was a very surprising 29-10 win on the road. It was still a down year though after four straight bowl games and 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2017. Pat Fitzgerald has built Northwestern into a program that can no longer be dismissed as “Just Northwestern”, but since they have made 14 bowl games in the last 25 years after decades of futility that moniker should be dead anyway.

Northwestern Offense

The Wildcats can thank a late season scoring burst and Rutgers for not having one of the worst offenses in the conference. They entered the Purdue game averaging a paltry 9.75 points per game. In Big Ten games that number dropped to 6.8. The final four game scoring binge raised them to 16.3 pointss per game as their final four game average was almost triple what they had in the first eight.

The offense was still really, really bad. They were 124th out of 130 teams in total offense, and that was with a blowout of UMass. The passing offense was 126th in the nation ahead of only Navy, Army, and Georgia Southern, who are option teams that do not try to pass, and Kentucky, who ran a mostly wildcat offense with a converted wide receiver.

The quarterback position should be better. Peyton Ramsey, who we last saw scoring the winning TD for Indiana in double overtime, is a graduate transfer ready to step in. Former 5-star transfer Hunter Johnson will get another shot too after a lot of issues last season. Those are the top two options with TJ Green also in the mix.

Isaiah Bowser (204 yards and a TD) and Drake Anderson (634 yards and 3 TDs) figure to be the top two options in the backfield. The rushing game was actually pretty good at 180 yards per game, good for 44thnationally, but the awful passing game limited what the Wildcats could do.

Riley lees (51-430-2) returns as the top receiver, but Northwestern receivers caught only six touchdown passes all season. That is the same number of touchdowns that John Raine, a graduate transfer in from Florida Atlantic, caught by himself. He will definitely be an asset. Berkeley Holman had some big play potential, but there are still a lot of questions at receiver.

The offensive line should be pretty strong. Four starters are back including Rashawn Slater and Peter Skoronski comes in as a very highly rated tackle as a true freshman. The potential is there for a quick rebound, but the quarterback position has to be better.

Northwestern Defense

The defense really wasn’t that bad last year. They played well enough to keep games competitive like a 13-10 loss at Nebraska, a 24-15 loss to Wisconsin, a 17-7 loss to Stanford, and a 20-0 loss to Iowa. The atrocious offense just didn’t help them much at all. They gave up 23.6 points per game, which is good enough to win a lot of games.

Paddy Fisher is a two-time all-Big Ten selection at linebacker and should have a great season after notching 89 tackles with an interception last year. Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin give them three very experienced linebacker to form a solid middle to the defense. Gallagher even had three interceptions, one of them coming against Purdue.

Travis Whillock and JR Pace give the Wildcats a pair of experienced safeties to build around. Greg Newsome II figures to be the top cornerback after battling injuries last season. That gives the back seven some of the most experience in the Big Ten.

The defensive line has a big hole after Joe Gaziano graduated as the program’s all-time sacks leader. Earnest Brown IV played in only six games last season, but had a pair of sacks and has a lot of promise. Samdup Miller is also a three-year starter at defensive end.

Northwestern Special Teams

Overall, kicker Charlie Kuhlbander had a good year, going 10 of 14 with a long of 44, but it was his field goal miss off the upright in the closing minutes that opened the door for Purdue to win on Dellinger’s field goal. He is back for a fourth season. Derek Adams enters as a grad transfer punter from Kent State.

Lees will likely handle kick and punt return duties again, he really didn’t have too many explosive moments there.

Game Outlook

Northwestern is going to be a lot better this year. The defense has the promise of being one of the best in the conference. The offense really can’t get much worse, and with Ramsey running the show there should be significant improvement. Purdue barely scraped by them a year ago, but by the time of that game we were so hampered by injuries virtually every skill position was filled by a freshman.

That should make for a pretty good game here. Purdue should also be better. The matchup of our offense against their defense is a good one.

Way-too-Early Prediction

I think these teams are pretty evenly match, so a three-point advantage to the home team, even if we have no idea what home field advantage will mean in 2020. Purdue 24, Northwestern 21