by Rob Doster
Little Caesars Bowl
Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
Date: Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: Ford Field, Detroit. Mich.
Purdue has a chance to post its first winning season since 2007, and the Boilers face a similar challenge to the one they encountered that season: needing a win in Detroit over a MAC team with a potent offense. That year, Purdue beat Central Michigan 51–48 in the Motor City Bowl, and the Boilers may need a similar offensive output this time around. Purdue, which never won as many as two games in a row during the regular season, ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed (26.4 ppg) but did earn a couple of clutch wins down the stretch to eke out bowl eligibility, most notably a 26–23 overtime win over Ohio State, finishing third in the Leaders Division at a respectable 4–4. Now they face a Western Michigan team that averaged 49.3 ppg over its last four outings, a 3–1 stretch marred only by a 66–63 loss to Toledo.
The game presents an intriguing contrast in styles: Western Michigan's all-out aerial assault against a Purdue team that prefers a more balanced approach. Boilers coach Danny Hope will be feeling the pressure to get that elusive seventh win to turn down the simmering heat starting to build in West Lafayette.
WHEN WESTERN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:
Broncos quarterback Alex Carder is the best player you may never have heard of. The strong-armed junior threw for 3,434 yards and 28 touchdowns, including four games of 400-plus yards and a 548-yard, seven-touchdown performance in the loss to Toledo. Carder, who's battling a shoulder injury, keys a passing attack that produced 329 yards per game, many of them coming on throws to receiver Jordan White, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision in receptions (127) and yards (1,646) and caught 16 touchdown passes. The Broncos' air-oriented offense managed only 127.4 yards per game on the ground, so look for Purdue to try to disguise coverages and dial up pressure packages to hurry Carder into mistakes.
WHEN PURDUE HAS THE BALL:
Stoppable force meets movable object; Purdue ranked 79th nationally in total offense, while Western Michigan ranked No. 100 in total defense. Quarterback Caleb TerBush had an up-and-down season highlighted by a two-touchdown performance in a 21–14 over then-No. 23 Illinois, the Boilers' first win over a ranked opponent of the Danny Hope era. But the Boilers will be wise to establish the ground game to chew clock and keep Carder off the field. Purdue averaged a respectable 174.7 yards per game on the ground and will be facing a run defense that ranked No. 107, yielding 215.9 ypg. However, the Boilermakers will be without running back Ralph Bolden, who suffered a torn ACL in the season finale.
The Broncos' White is a dangerous punt returner as well as receiver, averaging 13.1 yards per return. Purdue's Raheem Mostert ranked eighth nationally in kickoff returns (31.0). Both teams boast reliable kickers in John Potter (Western Michigan), who was 15-of-21, and Carson Wiggs, who was 16-of-21, including a 4-of-4 performance in the bowl-clinching 33–25 win over Indiana.
Western Michigan hasn't beaten a Big Ten team since 2008, losing its last six against its BCS big brothers. That's a significant mental obstacle to overcome, even though this is an eminently winnable game for the Broncos. Look for the Boilers to try to control the game on the ground and limit Carder's opportunities.
Purdue 31, Western Michigan 28