Everything you need to know about Saturday’s Big Ten championship game between Michigan and Purdue.

Big Ten championship game weekend is back. Woo-hoo.

Unless your team is playing, enthusiasm for the game is difficult to manufacture.

Since the Big Ten expanded to 12 teams to create a conference championship game, and then 14 teams 3 years later, the resulting matchups have been some of the least compelling in college football.

It didn’t look that way at first. Russell Wilson and Wisconsin beat Michigan State in a 42-39 thriller in the inaugural Big Ten title game in 2011. The B1G championship game seemed poised to be a tremendous addition to the sporting calendar.

Alas, Wisconsin’s 70-31 win over Nebraska the next season set the tone that most subsequent B1G championship games would follow.

Since the conference moved from Leaders and Legends to East and West divisions in 2014, the East champ is 8-0 against the West. The East champs are winning by an average margin of 20 points, with no games decided by fewer than 2 scores since 2017.

With the 2022 edition of the Big Ten championship game featuring unbeaten and second-ranked Michigan against an unranked West champion, there’s little reason to think that trend is about to change.

But there is a sliver of hope that cracks through the wall of boredom: that unranked team is Purdue. And this type of thing is Purdue’s specialty, regardless of decade.

Since 1950, the Boilermakers have 17 wins over top-5 opponents when unranked. No other program has more than 11 such wins, earning Purdue the “Spoilermakers” moniker.

And few Purdue coaches have mastered the craft better than Jeff Brohm. Brohm is 3-0 against teams ranked in the top 3, going back to a 49-20 wipeout of No. 2 Ohio State in 2018.

If any team is capable of making a Big Ten championship game interesting, surely it is the Boilermakers. On top of their history, the Boilers are playing an hour from their campus in the city where the majority of their alumni live.

This is also a chance at program history. Purdue hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2000. And it hasn’t won an outright Big Ten championship since 1929.

But is a powerful narrative strong enough to beat — or even compete with — mighty Michigan?

How they got here

Michigan kicked in the front door, while Purdue snuck through the back window.

The Wolverines have 14 straight Big Ten wins dating back to last October’s loss to Michigan State. Few of those games have been close.

Maryland is among the few teams to give Michigan a test this season, though timing helped the Terps. The Wolverines cruised through a preposterously light non-conference slate — home games against Colorado State, UConn and Hawaii — before facing a team that actually demanded 60 minutes of real football.

Michigan won its conference opener 34-27 and has mostly rolled ever since, including a 41-17 win over No. 8 Penn State and last week’s 45-23 win at now-No. 5 Ohio State.

The Wolverines resume is strong enough that they are almost certain to be in the College Football Playoff even with a loss.

Illinois is the only team to take Michigan down to the wire. But 3 Jake Moody fourth-quarter field goals, including a 35-yarder with 9 seconds left, propelled Michigan to a 19-17 victory. That outcome is also central in why Michigan is facing Purdue rather than the Fighting Illini.

Illinois simply needed a win over the Boilermakers on Nov. 12 to essentially clinch the West with 2 weeks remaining. Purdue entered the game with back-to-back losses against Wisconsin and Iowa that seemingly knocked the Boilers from title contention.

Instead, Aidan O’Connell threw 3 touchdown passes, including a pair to tight end Payne Durham, to lift Purdue to a 31-24 win that kept the season’s aspirations alive.

But the Boilers still needed someone to beat Iowa in order to reach Indianapolis.

Nebraska, of all teams, provided that favor on Black Friday. The next day, Purdue beat Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket as well as its first-ever trip to the Big Ten title game.

When Michigan has the ball

For the majority of the season, Michigan’s offensive approach was brutally simplistic.

Give the ball to first team all-B1G running back Blake Corum. Bludgeon opponents to a pulp with the Big Ten’s best offensive line. Occasionally ask sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy to make a throw that prevents opponents from overloading against the run game.

That equation is now significantly altered.

Corum injured his knee against Illinois, and only appeared for 2 plays against Ohio State. Now he is expected to miss the remainder of the season after electing to undergo knee surgery this week.

Just like that, the Wolverines are down 1,463 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns.

For most teams, losing a Heisman candidate would be an automatic knockout blow to its championship hopes. Michigan is built differently.

Backup Donovan Edwards showed he was more than capable of picking up the slack against Ohio State, rushing for 216 yards on 22 carries. He gained 160 of those yards on just 2 runs — a 75-yard touchdown followed by an 85-yarder.

Furthermore, the game was a coming of age for McCarthy.

Dared to throw the ball against Ohio State’s man-to-man coverage, McCarthy took the cheese and didn’t come close to falling in the trap.

Though he completed just 50% of his throws, McCarthy threw for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns. Receiver Cornelius Johnson had touchdown receptions of 69 and 75 yards.

Michigan’s newfound success with deep passing plays has to be concerning for a leaky Purdue pass defense.

Overall, the Boilers are better defensively than some might expect.

Purdue is 41st nationally in scoring defense, but 33rd in total defense and 20th in third-down defense. But the Boilermakers are susceptible to big plays. Purdue is 92nd with 42 completions allowed of more than 20 yards. Opponents have connected on 9 completions of 40-plus against Purdue, which is 87th nationally.

However, Purdue’s aggressiveness frequently pays off.

The Boilers are 19th in the country with 12 interceptions, returning 3 of those for touchdowns. And that total should be a nation-leading 4 touchdowns. Linebacker Jalen Graham had a touchdown taken off the board against Northwestern because he began high-stepping on his way to the end zone.

Doing that against Michigan is easier said than done, though.

McCarthy rarely makes high-risk throws, with only 2 interceptions to his name against 17 touchdowns.

Protecting the ball is the Michigan way. The Wolverines are second nationally with just 6 giveaways this season.

Key matchup: Michigan blockers vs. Jalen Graham

Purdue has a grand total of zero players on the Big Ten’s 3 all-defensive teams, which does little to assuage the belief that this is another championship game blowout waiting to happen.

But the Boilermakers do have a legitimate all-B1G talent in linebacker Jalen Graham. Graham missed 4 straight games after getting banged up in the season opener against Penn State.

The Detroit native is still second on the team with 48 tackles despite missing those games. He also excels defending the pass, playing the nickel role for the Boilers when needed.

Graham is a large part of the reason Purdue has been able to keep opposing running backs out of the third level of the defense this year.

The Boilers are 40th nationally in opponents’ yards per carry, but an impressive 13th when it comes to limiting carries of more than 20 yards. There have only been 8 such carries against Purdue this season.

This, of course, is one of Michigan’s strengths. Michigan blockers frequently get out to the second level, paving the path for 28 carries of 20 or more yards.

Edwards and possibly even McCarthy will run amok if the Wolverines can neutralize Graham.

When Purdue has the ball

The Boilermakers are capable of explosiveness, but don’t exercise it with consistency.

Purdue finished last season with a memorable 48-45 Music City Bowl win over Tennessee, and then opened this year with a 35-31 loss to Penn State in a high-octane thriller.

In September, the Boilers averaged 36 points per game. Though that includes a game against FCS Indiana State, Purdue also played ranked opponents in Penn State and Syracuse.

That average dipped to 29.5 points in October, as to be expected in a month of conference play. But the explosiveness was mostly missing in November, as Purdue averaged a ho-hum 20.3 points per game. That rates 8th in the B1G in games played after Halloween.

Overall, Purdue’s offense is near the middle of the road nationally.

Yes, O’Connell leads the B1G with 284 passing yards per game, and the Boilers are 21st nationally in passing yardage. But the Boilers do it in a nickel-and-diming fashion, using short passes the way most teams use the run game.

Purdue rates 92nd with 6.8 yards per attempt, and is 83rd with 35 completions of more than 20 yards.

The Boilers are the country’s median scoring offense, ranking 66th out of 131 with 28.6 points per game.

However, few teams are better in the red zone. Purdue has scored on 44 of 47 trips inside the 20, which rates 6th nationally. The Boilers are 23rd with a red zone touchdown rate of 70.2%.

Unfortunately for Purdue, that is among the Wolverines’ strengths. Michigan’s defense has the nation’s 9th-lowest red zone touchdown percentage.

Key matchup: Charlie Jones and Payne Durham vs. Michigan’s secondary

Purdue runs the ball far better than it did a year ago, when it ranked dead last nationally in yards per carry.

Freshman walk-on Devin Mockobee, whose only scholarship offer came from Air Force, is only 26 yards shy of setting Purdue’s freshman running record. Purdue has allowed the 8th-fewest tackles for loss nationally, which is a credit to both the offensive line and Mockobee’s hard running style.

However, the running game is unlikely to get it done against the Wolverines.

Michigan is 3rd nationally against the run and 4th in yards per carry. It also has allowed the 4th-fewest gains of 20 yards or more.

If Purdue is going to win, receiver Charlie Jones and tight end Payne Durham will need to ball out.

They are perfectly capable. Jones was a first team all-B1G wide receiver, and Durham the second team tight end.

Jones is 3rd in the country with 97 receptions, and leads all Big Ten receivers with 99.9 yards per game. His 12 touchdowns are tied with Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. for 3rd nationally.

This is Jones’ second straight crack at Michigan in the Big Ten championship game. He was the Big Ten return man of the year at Iowa last season but transferred to Purdue over the summer. Jones chose to play in both a more receiver-friendly offense and alongside O’Connell, his pee-wee football teammate.

Their connection has not diminished since middle school.

Durham hasn’t known O’Connell for as long as Jones, but you could hardly tell. He’s second to Iowa’s Sam LaPorta in receiving yards for Big Ten tight ends. Arguably no Big Ten pass catcher is more clutch. Durham has a league-high 7 touchdown catches in the second half of games this season.

That’s not a tight end stat, either. Durham’s 7 second-half touchdown receptions are tied for the national lead among all players.

Michigan nickel Mike Sainristil, who was playing receiver in this game a year ago, might have his hands full against Durham.

But Sainristil has proven himself up to the task most of the season, including against Ohio State tight end Cade Stover last week.

Special teams, injuries, etc.

Michigan has the special teams edge, as Moody is among the nation’s most reliable kickers.

In a situation where most college coaches would have been prompted to go for it late against Illinois, Jim Harbaugh was content to let Moody kick a field goal with 3:14 remaining that cut the Illini lead to 17-16.

Harbaugh had faith that his defense would get the necessary stop, and that Moody would make the game-winning field goal if it came down to it. His intuition turned out to be correct.

Though Michigan is just 49th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage, the Wolverines are 7th in red zone scoring because Moody is essentially automatic inside the 20.

Purdue kicker Mitchell Fineran was 24-for-29 last season, but is a less-certain 13-for-19 this year with a long of only 43 yards.

The Boilers have also had punt protection issues, allowing a pair of punt blocks.

Corum is the most important player missing this game, but Purdue is also without a critical piece in defensive tackle Branson Deen. Deen is an all-B1G honorable mention, and his void will make things that much easier for Michigan’s offensive line.

The game also has a pair of dramatic storylines off the field.

O’Connell temporarily left the team this week to attend the funeral of his older brother, who died unexpectedly in the week leading up to the Indiana game. His emotion was evident after beating the Hoosiers, and this will be another test.

On Michigan’s side of things, star defensive tackle Mazi Smith will play despite having a felony weapons charge filed against him this week. The charges stem from an incident when he was pulled over with a gun in his vehicle 7 weeks ago. Smith has played every game since his arrest.

Bottom line

Hard as it is to believe now, Michigan was making its first Big Ten championship game appearance this time last year.

In the time since then, the Wolverines have asserted themselves as the league’s top team. Michigan is built from the inside out, owning both sides of the line of scrimmage. This is football the way Harbaugh loves playing it.

This is most evident in the second half, when Michigan simply wears opponents down and wipes them out.

The Wolverines are 3rd nationally with 20.9 points per second half, while allowing a nation-best 5.4 points per second half.

Purdue’s defense ranks 71st with 12.4 points allowed per second half. Though the offense is keeping ahead of that pace with 14.8 points per second half (38th), the overall trend does not favor the Boilermakers.

Little about this matchup does. But Purdue can muck things up better than many might think. If Michigan fans expect this to be a soft defense, they’re in for a rude surprise.

Purdue handled itself well against two of the most physical teams in the West, beating Minnesota 20-10 and Illinois 31-24. The Boilers held the Gophers to a season-low 47 rushing yards, and are the only defense to keep Illinois’ Chase Brown under 100 yards in a game prior to the final weekend of the regular season.

Both of those offenses are modeled like Michigan’s. But those models include far less talent up front or at quarterback, and that’s where the Wolverines will separate themselves.

This might not be unlike Michigan’s matchup with Penn State. Purdue can keep it close for a half, or maybe even take a narrow lead into the locker room.

But inevitably, Michigan’s offensive avalanche will come. And the Lucas Oil Field scoreboard will end up looking like it usually does in this game: with a blowout win for the Big Ten East champ.

Prediction: Michigan 34, Purdue 13