Undefeated Purdue has 3 keys for its B1G West showdown vs. Northwestern
Purdue’s record is perfect. Its performance, however, has been anything but perfect.
The Boilermakers have been just good enough through two games, a comeback victory vs. Iowa, then a hang-on-until-the-end nail-biter at Illinois.
Now comes the stiffest test. Purdue, well rested after having last weekend’s game vs. Wisconsin canceled, hosts 3-0 Northwestern in a primetime showdown in Ross-Ade Stadium. The winner grabs at least a piece of frontrunner status in the B1G West.
Purdue spent the unexpected bye week working on a bit of cleanup, figuring it’d need to be nearer the top of its game to upend the upstart Wildcats. After all, the Boilermakers barely got by the Wildcats last year, rallying late and winning 24-22 on a last-play field goal.
Here are 3 areas of focus for the Boilermakers as they continue to prepare for Northwestern:
1. Get healthy
This is the obvious one for a bye week, right? But Purdue’s unexpected fortune — it missed Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin, and in Madison no less — gives the Boilermakers a chance to heal up. Coach Jeff Brohm has been more coy this season about injury news, so very little is known about who could return for Week 4. But let’s speculate.
Could this mark the return of Rondale Moore, uniting him — finally — with running mate David Bell to form what has to be the best 1-2 receiving punch in the Big Ten? Well, maybe. Not much is known about Moore’s situation; heck, it’s not known whether he’s even been injured, as Purdue has said nothing about his absence. But there’s a feeling, nothing much more than that, that Moore could be back on Saturday. What a boost that would be, especially against a defense as stout as NU’s.
Defensive end George Karlaftis seems less likely to return. The stud sophomore was sidelined against Illinois in Week 2, seeming to suffer a lower-leg injury that temporarily sent him to the locker room. It was heartening to see him in uniform and with teammates on the sidelines for the second half, but perhaps not fully telling of his status. We likely won’t know more until gameday.
Purdue needs a King. The former starting running back, King Doerue, has been sidelined with an ankle injury — he announced it himself on Snapchat before the season-opener — and that’s limited Purdue’s backfield significantly. While Zander Horvath has been great, with back-to-back 100-yard games, he needs help. No other running back has a carry; few have even gotten snaps. Doerue’s return would give a spell to Horvath, and give the Boilermakers a different look, too, as the sophomore has a bit more speed and shiftiness.
This sounds crazy, but Purdue’s deepest position might be on the offensive line. Good thing, too, since the Boilermakers are down a couple of starting linemen. Cam Craig, a redshirt freshman who has already proven to be a quality starter, is out for the season after surgery. And veteran center Sam Garvin is also sidelined. They’ll be replaced by youngsters Spencer Holstege, a redshirt freshman, at left guard and true freshman Gus Hartwig at center. Those two inexperienced players will get quite the test vs. Northwestern’s defense.
2. Find consistency
The Wildcats’ defense hasn’t given up a point in the second half this season, shutting out Maryland, Iowa and Nebraska. Northwestern has bent, like it did against the Cornhuskers, but it isn’t breaking. Nebraska advanced to the NU 25, 4 and 14-yard lines Saturday, but couldn’t get into the end zone (or even hit a field goal). Two drives ended in Wildcats’ picks and the third on downs.
Meanwhile, Purdue’s offense has been OK, but a bit more sporadic than anyone around West Lafayette enjoys. And in the red zone, Purdue hasn’t been effective enough, scoring on only 7 of its 10 trips, with only 5 touchdowns. The Boilermakers have had a pick, a fumble and turned the ball over on downs. Against an NU defense that only gives up 314 yards per game (second in the Big Ten), 12 points (second) and has a league-best 8 interceptions, including 6 in the second half, that might not be good enough.
3. Slow the run
One might think it’s Northwestern’s improved quarterback play that has led to the Wildcats’ 3-0 start. And Peyton Ramsey has been fine, hitting an efficient 67 percent of his passes with 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, although for only 170 yards per game. It’s the threat of the passing game — there was no such threat last season — that has helped to reopen the Wildcats’ ground game.
Northwestern has three 100-plus-yard rushers, led by Drake Anderson’s 193. Isaiah Bowser, who missed the Nebraska game, has 153 yards and Ramsey 101. All told, Northwestern is No. 4 in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 205.3 yards with 8 touchdowns, tied for second in the league.
Meanwhile, Purdue’s rushing defense is 11th, allowing 186.0 yards on the ground, better only than Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota.
The Boilermakers defense should expect a big test on Saturday.