Is this finally the year?
I have written about Purdue sports at my own site since 2006 and here at SB Nation since 2009. In that time I have seen a lot. I have seen a Purdue team win a National Championship (shout out women’s golf). I have seen multiple Big Ten titles in men’s basketball. I have seen bowl wins. I have seen a nine-win season in football. I have seen volleyball do a lot. I have seen baseball end a 103 year Big Ten title drought and host a regional. There have been two constants though:
1. Men’s basketball finding the banana peel in March and missing the Final Four.
2. Wisconsin running all over us in football.
Purdue heads into Saturday having lost 15 consecutive games to Wisconsin since a 26-23 win in Madison in 2003 on a last second field goal. Jim Sorgi was the quarterback for Wisconsin in that game, and he has been long retired as Peyton Manning’s backup. The Fumble happened the next year, and for most of this run it has been the same scenario: Wisconsin has had an extremely talented running back they hand off to behind a very large offensive line and they pave Purdue into dust, all while occasionally running a jet sweep or a playaction pass. Montee Ball did it. Melvin Gordon did it. James White did it. Jonathan Taylor was especially cruel with it.
That’s 15 games over almost 20 years now, all roughly the same. It is the longest winning streak any single opponent has ever had against Purdue. Only three of the 15 losses have come by eight points or less (2004, 2017, and 2018). Joe Tiller, Danny Hope, Darrell Hazell, Gerad Parker, and now Jeff Brohm all came up short in trying to stop the same thing.
On paper, this is Purdue’s best shot to end this run. Wisconsin has not been good this year and they find themselves in last place in the Big Ten West. Purdue is playing some pretty good football right now, while the Badgers have already fired their coach and have not looked right all year. It is a similar situation to 2018, when Purdue had its previous best chance to end the drought, but lost in triple overtime because it foolishly did not go for two in the second OT when we had a Rondale Moore and Jonathan Taylor was safely on the sideline while we had one play to win the game. (It also blew a two touchdown fourth quarter lead, but who is counting?)
Can we finally beat these guys?
2021 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten
2022 Record: 3-4, 1-3 Big Ten
Bowl Result: Beat Arizona State 20-13 in Guaranteed Rate Bowl
Blog Representation: Bucky’s 5th Quarter
Series with Purdue: Wisconsin leads 51-29-8
Last Purdue win: 26-23 at Wisconsin on 10/18/2003
Last Wisconsin win: 30-13 at Purdue on 10/23/2021
Head Coach: Jim Leonhard (1-1 as interim coach)
The Badgers’ Season Thus Far:
When Wisconsin has won this year, they have won big. Their three wins over Illinois State, New Mexico State, and Northwestern have come by a combined margin of 146-14. Illinois State is an FCS team though, while New Mexico State is 2-5 at the fringes of FBS and Northwestern has yet to win in North America in 2022.
In the other games, Wisconsin has been shockingly bad. The offense was rather pedestrian in a 17-14 loss at home to Washington State. It gained over 400 yards, but had three turnovers and could not finish. Ohio State did what Ohio State does to teams in a 52-21 blowout. The most shocking result was a 34-10 home loss to Illinois, where the Illini out-Wisconsin’d them on every level. Last week Graham Mertz managed only 131 yards through the air against a terrible Michigan State pass defense in a 34-28 double overtime loss.
Basically, the Badgers have blown out three pretty bad teams and then lost to anyone they have played with a pulse. I still think the firing of Paul Chryst was a huge surprise, even after the stunning Illinois result. This is the second straight zombie team Purdue will face with an already fired coach. Even then, the Badgers are a slight 2 point favorite and I don’t think that is enough.
Who to Watch on Offense
Braelon Allen – RB – I know it is shocking, but Wisconsin has a very good running back. Allen is third in the conference at 757 yards on the season, and he is probably going to play unlike when Purdue faced Minnesota sans Mo Ibrahim. For good measure he has 8 touchdowns, 61 yards receiving, and has even thrown a touchdown pass. He had 140 yards rushing and two scores on just 12 carries last year against Purdue, so I expect more of the same. He has been over 100 yards in four games this season and he had 123 yards and two scores against Michigan State last week.
Graham Mertz – QB – Mertz has struggled throwing the ball for many yards, but he has 15 touchdowns against six interceptions. His line has done him no favors though. Michigan State sacked him three times and Illinois got him five times. In the four loses this year he has failed to throw for more than 230 yards, and last week he had just 131. Last year he was reduced to catching snaps and handing off to Allen and Chez Mellusi, as they ran for 289 yards and three scores while Allen was 5 of 8 for 52 yards. That doesn’t sound familiar at all.
Chimere Dike – WR – Trey Palmer just had a field day shredding Purdue’s secondary, and Dike’s numbers entering this game are relatively close to Palmer’s. He has 29 receptions for 487 yards and five scores to lead the Badgers. The 6’1” junior has made some big plays this year and I am not encouraged by our secondary’s handling of Palmer last week.
The offensive numbers are skewed by the three blowout wins, but this is a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten. They are at 170 yards rushing while Purdue is giving up just over 100 yards on the ground. Given Mertz’s struggles it would be best if Purdue got a lead like last week and held it, daring Mertz to throw for the comeback. The offensive line has not been great, but I still fear them because it is Wisconsin.
Who to Watch on Defense
Nick Herbig – LB – Purdue’s offensive line is thin and has struggled at times. Now it has to keep Herbig out of the backfield. Herbig leads the Big Ten with six sacks and has 30 tackles overall. He had a big play against Purdue last year with a fumble recovery, but he has been good at getting into the backfield and causing problems. He finished last year with nine sacks and the junior has 16 for his career.
Maema Njongmeta – LB – Njongmeta leads the team with 49 tackles and he also has an interception to go with them. That’s good enough for 11th in the Big Ten overall and is more than Purdue’s top tackler.
John Torchio – S – It is no secret Purdue is going to pass a lot. Torchio is someone to watch out for as he has three interceptions, four pass breakups, and 31 tackles on the season. One of his interceptions was a full-field 100 yard pick-six in the season opener against Illinois State.
This is not Wisconsin’s best defense. They are only 9th in run defense a 114.3 yards per game and 7th in pass defense at 215.9 yards per game. They are still better than the last two Purdue opponents, and at 330 yards of total offense given up per game they are slightly ahead of Purdue in the Big Ten. That makes playing with a lead all the more important.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Andy Vujnovich – P – Vujnovich averages more than 44 yards per punt and had a banner day last year against Purdue by averaging over 45 yards per punt on five attempts.
Isaac Guerendo – KR – Purdue struggled to get touchbacks against Nebraska and Guerendo is a pretty good return man to keep an eye on. He is from Avon and he is averaging almost 25 yards per return, so he could pop one as a big momentum shift.
I am always going to be afraid of Wisconsin. When you lose 15 in a row to a team, all in pretty much the same way, you can’t help it. Even last year Mertz didn’t do much of anything, but he still had the ground game wear Purdue down as the Badgers won by 17. Their defense held Purdue in check all day and eventually Allen and Mellusi broke lose. Mertz completed only five passes, but two were on big first half third and long situations that led to 10 points.
That makes getting an early lead even more important. The Purdue offense did a very good job last week. It built an early lead and basically held off Nebraska the rest of the way. Wisconsin’s offense is not as good as Nebraska’s, but if Purdue falls behind early the Badgers are more than capable of grinding us to death yet again.
In the end, it is Wisconsin. We know what they are going to do. It will be a run heavy game behind Allen and Mellusi with some playaction thrown in. They beat Purdue by 17 last year while completing only five passes. Purdue has failed time and again to even slow down their running backs, let alone stop them, and they have another good one. Until proven otherwise, pick the Badgers.