As the 2021 Big Ten regular season begins to wind down, the conference offers something unique with Purdue and Northwestern set to face off at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The iconic home of MLB's Chicago Cubs will host this year's "Wildcats Classic." It marks the second time Northwestern has played a game in the historic ballpark also known as "The Friendly Confines." The Wildcats lost to Illinois 48-27 back in 2010.
This season, Northwestern (3-7, 1-6) is hoping to send things on a positive note as Pat Fitzgerald's team will finish with a losing record for just the second time in seven seasons. Purdue (6-4, 4-3) is already bowl eligible and still has a slim chance at winning the Big Ten West. The Boilermakers will need help to do this, but they also need to win out, starting Saturday against the Wildcats.
Purdue leads the all-time series 51-33-1, but Northwestern has won six of the past seven meetings, including last season's matchup in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Purdue vs. Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Wrigley Field (Chicago)
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Purdue -11
When Purdue Has the Ball
Quarterback Aidan O'Connell has commanded this offense when he's under center, but he has occasionally alternated with Jack Plummer (862 passing yards) over the course of the season. However, O'Connell has been more of the difference-maker for the Boilermakers as he leads the Big Ten in completion percentage (72.4), is second in pass completions (234), ranks fifth in both passing yards (2,477) and touchdown passes (16), and is tied for sixth in yards per attempt (7.7).
Purdue also boasts one of the top weapons in all of college football in wide receiver David Bell. He leads the conference and is seventh nationally with 1,106 receiving yards (on 75 catches). Bell played a huge role in the upsets of both Iowa (11 rec., 240 yds., TD) and Michigan State (11, 217, TD), so you know he'll have Northwestern's full attention. Fellow receivers Milton Wright (43 rec., 10th in Big Ten) and Jackson Anthrop (41 rec.) as well as tight end Payne Durham (4 TDs) also have been involved in the passing game.
The Boilermakers haven't been as proficient running the ball since injuries have impacted the backfield. King Doerue, Zander Horvath, and Dylan Downing have combined for 728 of the team's 782 rushing yards. The team's 78.2 rushing yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry have them at the bottom of the FBS leaderboard, and Purdue has scored just five rushing touchdowns in 10 games.
Despite the lack of ground support, the Boilermakers rank sixth in the Big Ten in total offense (416.8 ypg) with the passing game (338.3 ypg, second) doing the bulk of the work. But the one-dimensional attack is one of the reasons why they are scoring 25.4 points per game (ninth).
Purdue may catch a break on Saturday going up against a Northwestern defense that's had all sorts of issues. The Wildcats are second to last in yards allowed per game (422.2) and dead last against the run (228.9 ypg). Even though the Boilermakers don't pound the rock like Wisconsin (268 yds., 3 TDs on the ground in last week's 35-7 win over Northwestern), they should find success against a defense that's yielding 27 points per game.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Quarterback play has been an issue all season long for the Wildcats. Ryan Hillinski, Andrew Marty, and Hunter Johnson have all seen time under center with no one able to seize control of the job. Marty has started the last three games, but he was pulled and replaced by Hilinski last week. Despite this, Marty will likely get the nod again on Saturday. Collectively, the three signal-callers have combined for 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 56.5 percent of their passes for an average of 182.7 yards per game. Not surprisingly, Northwestern ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total offense (327.5 ypg) and last in scoring offense (17.1 ppg).
On the ground, running back Evan Hull continues to be the workhouse for this offense. He is eighth in the conference in rushing with 821 yards while averaging a hefty 5.8 yards per carry. The problem is he's only seeing around 14 rushing attempts per game, as the Wildcats have struggled to maintain drives. Northwestern is second to last in the Big Ten in time of possession, holding on to the ball less than 28 minutes (27:29) per contest.
Hull also is a big part of the passing game, ranking third on the team in receptions (25) and receiving yards (216). Wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. leads in both categories (40, 569), followed by Malik Washington (35, 450). Those three each have two touchdown catches on the season, along with tight ends Marshall Lang and Trey Pugh.
Purdue is a middle-of-the-pack defense when it comes to total yards (359.2) and passing yards (202.9) allowed per game, but Hull may find running room against a unit that is 12th in the conference in rushing defense (156.3 ypg).
This game at Wrigley Field will look and be played differently than the first one Northwestern played in 2010. In that one against Illinois, both teams had to strictly play on the west side of the east-west field because the dimensions of the ballpark at that time had created safety hazards on the east end of the field. Fortunately, the iconic venue has since been renovated, so there will be no field-use restrictions.
The Wildcats also are hoping the change in the field situation will turn around their fortunes in "The Friendly Confines." They lost 48-27 to the Illini in that game 11 years ago.
While the setting is unique and will provide a great picture on TV and experience for both teams. Northwestern simply has too many glaring issues to compete with a Purdue team that has already upset a pair of top-five teams this season. It may not be a blowout, but the Boilermakers will leave the Windy City with their seventh win on the season.
Prediction: Purdue 28, Northwestern 20
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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.