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Know Thy Opponent 2021: Northwestern Wildcats

Purdue at Wrigley Field? YES!

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Last season turned on the Northwestern game. Purdue entered the game at 2-0 and, with the Wisconsin game having been cancelled, had a real chance to win the West Division. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who had three TDs in the 27-20 win. The Boilers have not won since.

Despite a 3-9 season sandwiched between Big Ten West titles the Wildcats are consistently in the “pretty good, but not great” category. It is not unusual to see them in the 16-25 range of the top 25. If Purdue is ever going to make a move in the West they are a team we need to start beating more often.

This game also has the added quirk of being in Wrigley Field. As a diehard Cubs fan I take great joy in any trip to Wrigley, and seeing Purdue play football there is one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances that only happened this year because their Wrigley game last season was called off due to COVID. Since they were originally scheduled to play their three Wrigley games in even-numbered years and Purdue is slated to go to Evanston in odd-numbered years I didn’t think it would happen. Getting it this year is a very special treat.

I already have my tickets purchased, so let’s enjoy it.

Northwestern Wildcats

2020 Record: 7-2

Bowl Result: Won Citrus Bowl 35-19 over Auburn

Blog Representation: InsideNU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 51-33-1

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

Last Northwestern win: 27-20 at Purdue on 11/14/2020

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (106-81 in 16th season at Northwestern)

Last Season for the Wildcats

Northwestern is getting good at winning these West Division titles out of nowhere, but to be fair, last season felt more like the Hunger Games than actual college football. The Wildcats did manage to get 7 of their originally scheduled 8 regular season games in, only missing out on the Minnesota game. They ran the table again against the West, but had a bizarre 29-20 loss at a bad Michigan State team. They were able to hold their own against Ohio State with a stout defense, and the bowl win over Auburn was impressive.

In the Purdue game it was mostly about their defense. Purdue was held to two yards rushing on 17 attempts and Aidan O’Connell threw 51 times because trailed for most of the game. Zander Horvath and David Bell combined for 18 receptions and 178 yards, but aside from a 40 yard Garrett Miller TD big plays were few. It was a tightly played game where Purdue had two fourth quarter possessions with a chance to tie, but managed only eight yards on nine plays on said drives.

Northwestern Offense

Northwestern buoyed their quarterback position with Peyton Ramsey last season, but the one-year graduate transfer is gone. Enter another transfer, Ryan Hilinski, from South Carolina. InsideNU labeled him as the most important player on the roster:

If Hilinski posts a Peyton Ramsey-esque season, the ‘Cats probably trudge toward an 8-4 or 9-3 season and maintain top five status within the conference. If Hilinski turns out to be the next big thing and a contender for offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, he can elevate Northwestern’s usual structure for competency to even greater heights and lead the team to its third conference title game appearance in four years.

But if Hilinski flames out and the other options in the position room can’t step up behind him, a losing season is more than in the cards for a Northwestern team that has made its living for years as a close game survivor. Brandon Joseph, Peter Skoronski or Cam Porter performing below expectations would hurt, but a quarterback playing above his head will supersede all of that, while their own achievements can’t make up for a signal caller who can’t power an otherwise capable offense.

Hilinski will have tools around him. Running back Cam Porter came on strong late last year and finished with 333 yards and 5 TDs. Evan Hull will split time with him after rushing for 209 yards and 2 TDs. Ramsey was a solid element in the running game as well, and it remains to be seen if Hilinski can do the same. Peter Skoronski, Sam Gerak, and Ethan Wiederkehr are also three solid linemen to block up front.

In the receiver room there is a lot of potential. Bryce Kirtz and Berkeley Holman only had a combined 8 receptions last eyar, but should play larger roles. Northwestern also regains JJ Jefferson, who opted out last season, as well as transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. from Kansas.

Northwestern Defense

The Wildcat defense was the star of last season. They held all nine opponents under 30 points and only Michigan State (29) and Ohio State (22) even topped 20. When you can hold teams to 20 points or less it is a lot easier to win football games, and that is exactly what they did.

The secondary will be excellent with All-American safety Brandon Joseph back after he intercepted six passes a year ago. Greg Newsome II, who excelled against Purdue (specifically David Bell), is gone at corner, but Cameron Mitchell should take over as the top cover corner quite well.

What really hurts is the loss of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher at linebacker. They were the top two tacklers, but their running mate Chris Bergin is back for a fifth year after notching 78 yards and an interception. He will be the leader of the linebackers and be joined by Peter McIntyre and Bryce Gallagher.

The line should also be good and will be led by Junior Adetomiwa Adebawore, who had two sacks and veteran Samdup Miller (35 career starts) returns after opting out in 2020. Joe Spivak, Trevor Kent, and Jordan Butler should be good at the tackle spots.

Northwestern Special Teams

Charlie Kuhbander has made 37 career field goals and provides a solid option at kicker, but he did have the big miss against Purdue in 2019. Derek Adams averaged 42 yards per punt and hit for 40 yards per kick in six attempts last year. Given the strength of the defense he could be a difference maker.

Both return specialists need to be replaced.

Game Outlook

This is going to be a strange game. It is technically a Northwestern home game, but you can bet a lot of Purdue alums in the Chicago area will try to get tickets for what is a pretty unique atmosphere. Will there be enough to make it more of a neutral site game?

The game is not all about the venue though. Northwestern plays a very defensive-oriented type of football designed to win with field position and stops. That is how they got their last two wins over Purdue. In both of the last two games in West Lafayette the Wildcats got multiple fourth quarter stops to seal the deal.

It really comes down to Purdue’s offense. Purdue has not scored more than 27 points against Northwestern since 2007 when Joe Tiller was still calling the shots. That’s a run of 10 games, and in seven of those games Purdue scored 21 or less. Northwestern’s offense hasn’t been great for a while, but the defense has been good enough to cover that.

Way-too-early Prediction

This is one of those far games out where I feel Purdue has a chance, but Northwestern still should be good. We also don’t know the toll that injuries, COVID, alien invasion, or other weird stuff will have on this. Northwestern was really good in 2018, terrible in 2019, and pretty good last year. It is really hard to predict them. Given their defense though, I think they have an edge. Northwestern 27, Purdue 24