Try going through all of the Michigan game-by-game prediction previews prior to the regular season and locate one that had Purdue within three touchdowns of the Wolverines in their Week 4 matchup. You won’t.
My, how things have changed since then.
In a week that lacks many high-profile games, Michigan-Purdue has the look of one that could surprise those who have not paid close attention to what head coach Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers have done through three weeks of the season. After a close opening loss to Louisville, Purdue has rattled off consecutive wins, including a drubbing of Missouri last week in Columbia.
As for the Wolverines, they have put together back-to-back uninspiring performances in wins over Cincinnati and Air Force at home. Another lackluster showing this week, and Michigan may not be as lucky to come out with a victory in its Big Ten opener.
Michigan at Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Michigan -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Injuries to offensive playmakers
The Wolverines were hit with some bad news this week as leading receiver and true freshman Tarik Black will miss an extended period of time this season due to a foot injury suffered against Air Force. When asked if he would be back in 2017, head coach Jim Harbaugh did not provide a definitive answer, but the expectation is that he could miss the remainder of the year. If that is indeed the case, fellow freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones and sophomore Eddie McDoom will be expected to take on larger roles in the offense. Starting running back Ty Isaac also left the game against Air Force with a lower back injury, although he is expected to play against Purdue. Isaac has been, by far, the best offensive player for Michigan this season.
2. Getting defensive
With head coach Jeff Brohm coming over from Western Kentucky, the immediate expectation was that the Purdue offense would be drastically improved over years past. Brohm’s WKU offenses averaged just under 45 points per game during his three seasons with the Hilltoppers. That said, it is the defense that has been the more impressive side of the ball to start the season for Purdue. In three games, the Boilermakers have allowed just six offensive touchdowns, three of which came in the opener against Lamar Jackson, which is certainly understandable. Purdue was exceptional last week on the road against a potent Missouri offense, keeping the Tigers out of the end zone altogether. One area of concern, though, is getting pressure on the quarterback, as Purdue is tied for dead last in the country with just one. That will need to change this week.
3. Polar opposites in the red zone
The Michigan struggles in the red zone in 2017 have been well documented to this point. While the Wolverines have scored points in nine out of their 10 trips inside the 20-yard line, thanks in large part to kicker Quinn Nordin, the offense has scored just a single touchdown. Quarterback Wilton Speight in particular has struggled mightily, completing just 1-of-13 passes for seven yards in the red zone. On the flip side, Purdue has been perfect with 13 scores in 13 tries in the red zone, including 10 touchdowns. Quarterback David Blough has been especially good throwing the football in the red zone, completing 12-of-13 passes with four touchdowns. If these trends continue this week, the Boilermakers will have an excellent shot at pulling the upset.
Two questions linger that will have a major impact on Saturday’s outcome: Can the Wolverines flip the script on their woes in the red zone and put seven on the scoreboard consistently? Or will the Boilermakers defense remain as stout as it has been so far and finally be able to put some pressure on the quarterback? The crowd will be raucous in this massive Big Ten opener, which plays to the Boilermakers' advantage, but the smart money is to go with the team that has played in these types of games repeatedly over the past few seasons, and that is Michigan.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Purdue 19
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.