For a week loaded with top-25 matchups around the country, this game is a deceptively important one as Purdue and Northwestern square off in Evanston on Saturday night. The two sides enter on polar opposite trajectories, as the No. 25 Wildcats have won four in a row, including a 39-31 triple-overtime win against No. 16 Michigan State. Purdue, meanwhile, has gone 1-3 in its last four games, losing the three by a combined 11 points before defeating Illinois 29-10 last week. That win came with a crushing loss, though, as junior quarterback David Blough suffered a season-ending right leg injury.
The Boilermakers come in at 4-5, but with a 2-4 record in Big Ten play that currently slots them fifth in the Big Ten West. Purdue has lost all three games against ranked competition in 2017, losing 35-28 in the season opener to Louisville (No. 16), along with losses to No. 8 Michigan (28-10) and No. 7 Wisconsin (17-9). The road doesn’t get much easier, as the Boilermakers also have No. 20 Iowa on the road next week before finishing at home against Indiana. Purdue needs to win at least two of its last three games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2012.
Northwestern (6-3, 4-2) has turned a lot of heads lately, rattling off four conference wins that seem much more impressive now than they perhaps did at the time. Including in that stretch is a 17-10 win over Iowa — who just trounced Ohio State — three weeks ago, and that 3OT thriller against Michigan State, who comes in at No. 12 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. This streak has propelled the Wildcats to bowl eligibility for the third straight season and ninth time overall in head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 12-year tenure.
Purdue holds a 50-30-1 advantage in head-to-head meetings with Northwestern, but the Wildcats have the last three and five of the last six. The last time Purdue won, however, was in Evanston, a 20-17 victory on Oct. 9, 2010.
Purdue at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Northwestern -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Purdue’s offense under Sindelar
With David Blough out for the rest of the season, Elijah SIndelar figures to get all of the snaps at quarterback after sharing them in some fashion in the eight games he has played. Fortunately Sindelar has gotten plenty of experience as Boilermakers head coach has largely employed a two-QB system this season. While Sindelar has held his own as a passer (939 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs), Purdue will need more production from running back D.J. Knox moving forward. A junior, Knox is averaging six yards per carry, but he’s had a total of 64 rushing attempts in nine games and has scored just once on the ground. Expect the Boilermakers to try to run the ball a little more frequently now that Sindelar is the full-time quarterback.
2. Northwestern’s defensive pressure
As if it wouldn’t be difficult enough for Purdue’s offense to success with just one healthy quarterback, the Wildcats’ defense has caused plenty of headaches for opponents all season. Linebacker Paddy Fisher averages a forced fumble every three games, a rate that is best in the Big Ten and 13th nationally. Joe Gaziano is in the top three in the Big Ten with 0.7 sacks per game, and their combined pressure will likely cause problems for the Boilermakers, especially if there’s more of an emphasis on trying to run the ball.
3. Turnover battle
One way for Purdue to steal a win on the road? Hang on to the football. The Boilermakers’ are fifth in the Big Ten with a plus-two turnover margin, which also places them among the top 50 teams in the nation. Northwestern is on the wrong side of that margin, entering with a minus-three margin, which is 10th in the conference. The Wildcats will try to make it tough on Sindelar in his first start without Blough sharing snaps, but if the sophomore quarterback can take care of the ball it should at least increase Purdue’s chances of hanging around and being in a position to secure a much-needed road victory.
Purdue and Northwestern meet in Evanston with momentum headed in opposite directions, but that may not matter for a prime-time conference game. The Boilermakers needs a rare win over a ranked opponent to increase their chances of going to a bowl, while the Wildcats are hoping to continue their recent hot streak. Northwestern’s already secured its postseason berth, so there’s no question this game means more for Purdue. Even with Elijah Sindelar having to step up as the full-time quarterback, Jeff Brohm’s team makes enough plays on both sides of the ball to knock off the Wildcats and inch closer to bowl elgibility.
Prediction: Purdue 28, Northwestern 24
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.