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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Purdue Boilermakers Prediction and Preview

Purdue Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm

Purdue Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm

It doesn’t happen often, or almost never in the cases of these two teams, but Purdue hosts Northwestern in a rare season-opening conference game on Thursday night. This is part of the Big Ten's effort to play outside of its traditional Saturday lineup due to the fact that the conference has now grown to 14 teams with multiple national platforms at its disposal.

The Wildcats haven’t lost to Purdue since 2010. In fact they’ve won four straight against the Boilermakers, including the last two at Ross-Ade Stadium, by a combined score of 83-31. Purdue wen 7-6 in head coach Jeff Brohm's debut, the program's first winning season since 2012. On the other side, Northwestern is coming off of its second 10-win campaign in three years.

This may be the opener, but it's a crucial game for both teams as Brohm is looking to lead the Boilermakers to back-to-back bowl game for the first time since 2011-12, while Pat Fitzgerald is hoping to lead his Wildcats to their first-ever Big Ten West Division title and first conference championship since 2000. It’s not often that these programs get a primetime TV slot, so look for both programs to make the most of their opportunity in the national spotlight.

Northwestern at Purdue

Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Spread: Northwestern +3

Three Things to Watch

1. The quarterbacks

Although head coach Pat Fitzgerald continues to say his senior quarterback, Clayton Thorson, will be a game-time decision (offseason knee surgery), there’s no doubt that he will start for the Wildcats. He’s been cleared to participate in all workouts and practices for the last few months and hasn’t had any setbacks since becoming a full participant several weeks ago. At the same time, he hasn’t seen full contact yet. So the test for Thorson on Thursday night will be how he handles getting hit for the first time since last year’s Music City Bowl.

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Senior David Blough and junior Elijah Sindelar both return for Purdue after recovering from injuries of their own. Blough threw for 1,103 yards and nine touchdowns before a leg injury ended his season with four games left, while Sindelar threw for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns in his own right and played the final few games with a torn ACL. Both men split snaps before Sindelar took over as the full-time starter after Blough was injured. It appears that they will split time again this year but Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm could choose to go with whoever is more effective moving the ball. All three signal-callers bring plenty of experience to the table.

2. Northwestern’s rushing attack

While Purdue will no longer be tormented by Wildcats running back Justin Jackson, Northwestern's all-time leading rusher, the backfield cupboard isn't exactly bare for Fitzgerald. Junior John Moten IV is the most experienced running back with sophomore Jeremy Larkin creating the most buzz during the offseason. Freshman Isaiah Bowser and sophomore Jesse Brown also figures to see come carries.

3. Defenses will be the key

This game could come down to one or two big defensive plays. One of the reasons Purdue went 7-6 last year as their defense gave up 30 or more points on just two occasions –- against Louisville and Arizona. The challenge for defensive co-coordinators Nick Holt and Anthony Poindexter will be replacing seven starters from that unit, which was especially effective against the run.

Northwestern was even stinger on that side of the ball in 2017, ranking in the top 10 nationally in total, scoring and rushing defense, and 14th against the pass. The Wildcats return a little more experience with six starters back, including All-Big Ten candidates on all three levels.

Final Analysis

Both schools will be a little more amped up than usual for this Thursday night primetime matchup on ESPN. Defense was the big reason both teams were so successful last year, but Purdue is tasked with replacing several key pieces from 2017's unit while Northwestern returns experience across all three levels. The Boilermakers will need to find a way to move the ball and score some points on offense and it remains to be seen if rotating in two quarterbacks will help or hinder their attack.

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Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is looking to return from a serious injury and he has a reputation for playing his best under the bright lights. However, the Wildcats' offense won't need to rely solely on their senior quarterback as the running game should be fine even without Justin Jackson to rely on thanks to a veteran offensive line.

In the end, Northwestern appears to be the better team on paper and while Purdue will put up a fight, look for the Wildcats to settle down and take control of the game in the second half.

Prediction: Northwestern 30, Purdue 24

— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.