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The Kickoff | Keys to Purdue vs. Northwestern

Purdue will look to take the positive steps they gained against Minnesota and elevate their game again against Northwestern

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Purdue Boilermakers will look to win back to back games for the first time in 2023 when they travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on the Northwestern Wildcats. With their dominating 49-30 victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Boilers showed they have the capabilities of beating most of the opponents on their schedule but were hit with a litany of bad breaks throughout the year due to injuries, turnovers, and a steep learning curve on both sides of the ball. The hope is that the Minnesota game was a turning point for the program under Ryan Walters and Purdue can end the season on a three game winning streak. That kind of end to the season would provide a great foundation moving forward into 2024 with one of the best recruiting classes in recent program history coming in.

Northwestern comes into the game with the 26th rated defense overall with a rushing defense ranked 61st and a passing defense ranked 14th. This will mark the seventh top 30 defensive unit Purdue has faced through 11 games this season with Michigan (1), Ohio State (4), Iowa (6), Nebraska (14), Virginia Tech (21), and Wisconsin (27th). Northwestern struggles on the other side of the ball with the 124th rated offensive unit in college football that averages just 293.4 yards of total offense per game with 200.7 yards passing (90th) and 92.8 yards on the ground (123rd) per game.

Let’s get into the keys for the Boilermakers against the Wildcats:

1 | Limit the Explosive Plays in the Passing Game

Where Purdue has struggled so much this season has been allowing big plays to an offense that gives the opponent momentum. Too many times Purdue has allowed receivers to get behind them for long plays and scores and that was really evident in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It was in the second half, however, that Purdue really seemed to come together and limit as many big plays and really forced Minnesota to earn the scores they did get. In fact, in the first half Minnesota had seven passing plays of 20 yards or more but in the second half they had only two. That’s a big shift from half to half.

So far this season, Purdue has given up 46 passing plays of twenty yards or more while only giving up 13 such rushing plays. Some of that is expected with the defensive scheme Purdue is running where the focus is clogging the running lanes and making offenses more one-dimensional but the explosive plays have to be limited. Doing that makes an opposing quarterback make proper reads and good throws but the more opportunities there are to make plays for the defense means the chances to generate turnovers are greater.

Simply put, Purdue needs to limit those explosive plays in the passing game against a team that may be the worst offensive team Purdue has faced all season. The stats certainly back that up with only Iowa being ranked lower and Purdue held them largely to 13 points outside of one explosive play in the running game. Limit them to three or less and Purdue has a chance.

2 | Generate Pressure in the Backfield

Purdue has one of the best duos at producing heat in the backfield in Nic Scourton and Kydran Jenkins. The dynamic duo have combined for 26.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Against a Northwestern team that ranks at the bottom of the entire country in preventing their quarterback from getting sacked by giving up an average of 4.1 sacks per game (127th) which ranks them just ahead of Illinois, the entire defense should live in the backfield.

Forcing bad plays and giving the offense more opportunities to score is a recipe to get a win on the road in the B1G. If Purdue can make it tough on Northwestern by constantly putting them behind the chains and forcing long 2nd and 3rd downs, Purdue’s pass rush will be able to pin their ears back more and more while Head Coach Ryan Walters will dial up more and more blitzes. Purdue should get to 5 on Saturday.

3 | Get Tracy and Mockobee Going

It is really clear that when Purdue can run the ball, they are a really effective offensive team. In their three wins on the season, Purdue is averaging an astounding 240 yards per game on the ground. That is obviously ballooned a bit because of the Minnesota game but in their other two victories the Boilers went for 179 yards and 189 yards as well. Only against Wisconsin did Purdue get that kind of production out of the running game but they also lost the turnover battle 3 to 1 and the defense couldn’t stop a very average Wisconsin offense. Overall in those losses, Purdue is averaging just 117 yards per game on the ground. Simply put, that isn’t enough this season.

Graham Harrell called a great game last week against Minnesota and the offense hummed along efficiently along with hitting multiple big plays in both phases of the game. That started with Devin Mockobee and Tyrone Tracy becoming the first duo of backs to both rush over 100 yards in over twenty years and the best overall rushing performance since 2012. That total of 353 yards was as dominating a performance as Purdue fans have seen in the rushing game since Ralph Bolden, Joey Harris, or Mike Alstott were on field.

Northwestern’s defense gives up 149.1 yards per game on the ground and if Purdue can get above that point they will enhance their chance of winning. The bigger issue might just be getting the backs going on third and short as Purdue very nearly failed to score with a goal line opportunity again.

Extra Point | Hudson Card’s Efficiency

When Hudson Card is efficient and effective, the Purdue offense looks so much different. When you take into account Card’s completion percentage and his QB Rating (ESPN) in the victories and losses, those concepts become even more clear. In the three victories, Card is completing his passes at a 68.3% rate and his rating is 72.4 whereas in losses he is just completing 53.3% of his passes and his rating is just 36.7.

Purdue’s offense, when it stays efficient through the passing game led by Card, is really difficult to defend as the running backs are capable of breaking big plays. Pushing the defensive backs and linebackers onto the heels because of Card’s effectiveness is likely the balancing point for the offense. Card needs to throw at a 68.3% rate and have a rating of 72.4 or better to have a chance.

Key Players

Ben Bryant | Quarterback | 6’3 214 | 6th | 113-187 60.4% 1121 yards 8TD 3INT

Bryant is on his 6th season in college football with his previous stops of Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan prior to being at Northwestern. Bryant missed four games in the middle of the season due to injury and returned last week to lead the Wildcats to a 24-10 victory over Wisconsin. Northwestern gives up 4.1 sacks per game so the Boilers will need to dial up the heat on Bryant.

Bryce Kirtz | Receiver | 6’ 180 | Senior | 36rec 526 yards 4 TD

Kirtz is the leader of a solid but not flashy receiver corps for the Wildcats with a career day against the Gophers earlier in the season with 10 receptions for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns. He has the capabilities to really hurt an opposing defense that struggles against the pass and that defines what Purdue has struggled with.

Xander Mueller | Linebacker | 6’3 210 | RS Jr | 44 solo 36 ast 80 total 9.5 TFL 4.5 sack

Northwestern doesn’t generate a ton of pressure from a single position but Mueller is the straw that stirs the drink for the Wildcats on defense. He is able to make plays all over the field and his numbers justify that with 80 total tackles, 9.5 TFL’s, and 4.5 sacks.


With news of Hudson Card and Nic Scourton both being out with injuries against the Wildcats just two hour before game time that changes everything for the Boilers. Just as Card appeared to be turning the corner he will miss the game due to a rub injury while Scourton’s injury is undisclosed. Purdue will have to rely on their ground game which has been the strength of the offense but Northwestern’s defense is very stout and will be able to focus solely on stopping the run.

Simply put, Purdue is in trouble against the Wildcats. More than likely this may be Purdue and Ryan Walters looking forward to the Bucket Game next week rather than a largely meaningless game against Northwestern.

Purdue: 13
Northwestern: 27