Purdue looks to maintain its claim to first place in the Big Ten West when the Boilermakers host Northwestern on Saturday. With just two games left in the regular season, Purdue (6-4, 5-3 Big Ten) controls its destiny following last week's upset of Illinois. If the Boilermakers defeat the Wildcats this weekend and rival Indiana next Saturday, then they will secure their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Northwestern (1-9, 1-6) has lost nine in a row after being blown out 31-3 on the road against Minnesota. The offense once again failed to get anything going while the defense was run over by Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim to the tune of 178 yards and three touchdowns.
These division rivals have split the past four meetings, with the Boilermakers winning 32-14 last season in a game that was played at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Northwestern at Purdue
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The biggest question the Wildcats will need to answer this week is who starts at quarterback? Brendan Sullivan got the start in Minneapolis last week but was pulled in the second quarter after taking a big hit. Ryan Hilinski replaced Sullivan, only to be carted off the field with a leg injury in the second half. Both signal-callers combined to complete just 12 passes for 162 yards. Carl Richardson (37 passing yards) and Cole Freeman (one completion) finished the game.
Depending on Sullivan's availability, head coach Pat Fitzgerald could turn to someone else on the roster. Perhaps it's time to see what much-talked-about freshman Jack Lausch can do under center? Whoever gets the nod will probably hand the ball off to versatile running back Evan Hull a lot. Hull has been Northwestern's best player this season and is fourth in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards at 138.8 per game. Wide receiver Malik Washington has been the team's top target (55 rec., 616 yds.), but this has been an offense that has struggled to put drives together and points on the board. In conference games, the Wildcats are averaging 4.55 yards per play and 315.6 yards per game (10th). They also have scored 12 touchdowns in seven Big Ten contests and are last at 13.1 points per game.
Last week, Purdue become the first team to hold Illinois running back Chase Brown, the nation's leading rusher, under 100 yards (98, also left the game in the fourth quarter due to injury). Overall, the Boilermakers held the Fighting Illini, who rank fourth in the Big Ten in rushing offense, to just 3.1 yards per carry. Overall, Purdue comes into this game ninth in Big Ten play in total defense at 376.1 yards per game allowed. They have had more trouble defending the pass (261.4 ypg, last) than the run (114.7, fourth) in conference games but should have an easier time against Northwestern.
When Purdue Has the Ball
The Boilermakers did what most teams haven't been able to against Illinois, as they put up 31 points and 379 yards against what was the No. 1 scoring and total defense in the nation entering last week's game. While Purdue did a good job finding running room (142 rushing yards on 33 carries) against the Illini, it was quarterback Aidan O'Connell who led the way.
He completed 25 of 40 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception and wasn't sacked once in the victory. He's now second in the Big Ten in both passing yards (2,675) and touchdowns (18) while leading the way in both completions (254) and attempts (398).
On the ground, Devin Mockobee was responsible for 106 yards, his fourth 100-yard effort of the season. The freshman running back is 10th in the conference in rushing with 732 yards and is averaging just under 100 per game against conference opponents. Wide receiver Charlie Jones continues to be O'Connell's favorite target as he leading's the Big Ten in both receptions (87) and receiving yards (87) and is second with 10 touchdown catches. Jones' touchdown production alone matches that of Northwestern's entire passing game this season.
Overall, Purdue is tops in passing offense in conference games (291.4 ypg), although the 11:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio is far from ideal. The Boilermakers are still scoring 26.1 points per game against Big Ten foes, which is a reason why they are in the driver's seat for a division title. Running the ball hasn't necessarily been a strength for this team, but Mockobee has been coming on strong with 100-yard efforts in three of his last four games, and he's facing a Wildcats defense that is last in the conference against the run (209.6 ypg in Big Ten games) and just gave up more than 300 last week to Minnesota.
Northwestern has done a much better good job against the pass (191.9 ypg, fourth), but that's because teams haven't had to throw the ball as much — plus, the Ohio State game was played in less-than-ideal conditions. Overall, the Wildcats are giving up 29 points and more than 400 yards per game to Big Ten opponents.
Purdue has all the momentum and its sights clearly set on securing the Big Ten West title. Northwestern has been in a free-fall for the past several months, and with the injuries and questions at the quarterback position and on offense in general, it certainly doesn't seem like things will get any better on Saturday in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers roll, setting up a division-clinching situation for next Saturday's rivalry game at Indiana.
Prediction: Purdue 31, Northwestern 10
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
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