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Purdue Boilermakers vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Preview, predictions and prognostications

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When: 12:00 p.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Purdue leads 50-28-1
Last Meeting: Northwestern 38-14, in 2014
Line: Northwestern -16.0

A week after winning a separation game against Penn State with a backup quarterback, Northwestern must defend against a letdown vs. Purdue in order to keep hopes alive for a possible division championship and a major bowl game. Purdue has been inconsistent, but plays solidly some weeks against better competition, which is precisely the type of team Northwestern is.

Will Purdue regain the advantage and show another step in the right direction with a third Big Ten win in Darrell Hazell’s still young tenure in West Lafayette? Or will Northwestern head into a huge game next weekend against Wisconsin with continued momentum? Let’s count to five and preview this matchup.

1 Burning Question: Can Purdue generate enough offense against a competent defense to win against a ranked team?

Purdue has played well in spots this season, as mentioned above. However, those spots against teams like Michigan State and Nebraska have something in common: a defense which is not dominant. Michigan State ranks 8th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and 9th in the Big Ten in total defense, while Nebraska ranks 10th in the conference in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. Those are defenses that most teams will produce at least an effective day against.

Northwestern, albeit only a couple of spots higher in the conference rankings for defense compared to Michigan State, is statistically a big leap better than the Spartans. Outside a mid-season swoon against Michigan and Iowa, the Wildcats have been completely dominant, which has led to the 7-2 record and national ranking this season.

Purdue should not give up a ton of points, but teams like Stanford, Penn State, and Duke did not either and still lost. The key is generating offense, and that will be the major question facing Hazell’s staff and players on Saturday.

2 Key Stats:

— 190.7 and 205.1. That’s the rushing offense average for Northwestern and the rushing defense average for Purdue, respectively. This puts the Wildcats in the top 3 of the conference rankings in this department, while Purdue is well-established in last place. Likewise, Purdue also ranks last in rushing offense (135.1 yards per game), while Northwestern gives up only 143 rushing yards per contest. That spells bad news for the Boilers in what looks to be a defensive slog of a game, as keeping the defense off the field to avoid being worn out will be critical late in the game.

— 43% That’s Northwestern’s 3rd down conversion rate and also Purdue’s opponent 3rd down conversion rate. Despite all of the offensive struggles for Northwestern this season, this team is good in clutch moments and good at avoiding mistakes and negative plays that lead to tough 3rd-and-long situations. Much like the rushing stats above, this indicates Northwestern tends to keeps drives alive, and Purdue also struggles to get off the field. On the opposite side, for comparison, PU picks up only 35% of 3rd downs while NU gives up only 31% 3rd down conversions. Again, unless this becomes an unexpected track meet, the key stats favor the #B1GCats.

3 Key Players:

Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB – It’s unclear if starting quarterback Clayton Thorsen will be playing or healthy enough to be effective, which means the offense will once again be dominated by Jackson and the running game. He’s proven capable of carrying the load in these situations, including last week with a 180 yard performance against Penn State’s talented defensive front. Purdue has to key on slowing Jackson down, but that will be easier said than done with the talent the Boilermakers have on this year’s defense.

Danny Ezechukwu, Purdue LB – While he does not lead the Boilermakers in tackles this season (that honor belongs to SS Leroy Clark), Ezechukwu will be the most important player on the field for Purdue against the Wildcats. The linebackers must read plays correctly and not get caught blocked out of or overrunning plays to avoid the big chunks of yards that will flip this game in Northwestern’s favor. Expect a big day statistically for him and the other linebackers regardless of how the unit plays, but this will be the line of defense that determines whether Purdue hangs close and has a chance to win.

Solomon Vault, Northwestern KR – Not only does Vault have one of the best names in the conference, he also is one of only six players in the NCAA with two or more kickoff returns for touchdowns. These have come at critical times in the closest games of the season, including during last week’s game at Penn State. While it is likely too much to expect lightning to strike two weeks in a row, Purdue does not boast one of the better kick coverage units. Whenever Purdue finds a score in this game and has the opportunity to kick off, it simply cannot afford to let Vault provide points or the good field position that leads to easy answers for Northwestern.

4 Bold Prognostications:

Northwestern outgains Purdue by over 100 yards – This would not be such a surprise considering how positive the reviews above of the Wildcats have been, but Northwestern ranks last in the conference with only 339 yards per game. With this game being in the friendly confines of Ryan Field, I expect this to be one of the best days of the season on offense, regardless of who is playing quarterback. Thus, Purdue surprisingly ends up with a much less effective day than normal, and not effective enough to win against a ranked opponent.

Both teams turn the ball over twice – It appears that this game will be all about the running game and field position, but I expect about half of the points will be scored off turnovers on a sloppy day for both teams. If Zach Oliver plays, that will lead to one more turnover than usual for Northwestern, while Purdue is averaging more than two turnovers a game already. That won’t change against the high quality NU defense.

Markell Jones will score the only Purdue touchdown(s) – I say touchdown(s) because our staff has some discrepancy on how well Purdue will fare in this game. Jones has been one huge bright spot in this year’s freshman class, averaging 5.51 yards per carry and going for 8 touchdowns on the season. He will again be the best option Purdue has against a quality Northwestern defense, but he will find a way to get his team into the end zone on Saturday. A promising season continues for this future star.

The score will be 3-0 or 0-0 after the first half – In a game dictated by field position and running against touch defenses, it can take a while for the defenses to wear down and let opponents have scoring opportunities. Plus, I expect both teams to be sloppy with the ball, perhaps in the red zone early. Thus, this game should be very ugly at halftime, with maybe a field goal for one team, if any points at all. The second half should be far more entertaining, however.

5 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Northwestern 24-13 (73-19 overall; 41-50 ATS)
Dave: Northwestern 24-7 (75-17 overall; 48-42 ATS)
Greg: Northwestern 31-13 (68-26 overall; 50-40 ATS)
Matt: Northwestern 28-13 (73-19 overall; 53-37 ATS)
Phil: Northwestern 28-10 (27-12 overall; 14-22 ATS) *joined in Week 5

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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