Northwestern is eagerly looking forward to 2016.
That’s because the Wildcats are aiming to start next year by playing in a high-profile bowl game. To get there, though, they must put themselves in position to do so starting with Saturday’s home game against lowly Purdue.
Third in the Big Ten’s West Division, No. 24 Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) would have to win out and get help to reach the conference title game, but a strong finish would let the Wildcats gain ground in the College Football Playoff rankings and possibly realize their goal of a January finale.
"We try to take everything week by week. But the bigger picture was addressed, to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl was addressed," guard Matt Frazier told the team’s official website Monday. "But then we brought it down to how do we get there. That’s by winning each week."
And getting to that point would lead to a loftier, unprecedented status for Northwestern.
"A big thing for our senior class, the legacy we want to leave, if we win out the rest of our games, we’ll be the first Northwestern team to have won 11 games in a season," cornerback Nick VanHoose added. "But you’ve got to look it as 1-0 each week. It’s step by step. If you start thinking of things long term, you forget about what’s in front of you."
Coach Pat Fitzgerald expects quarterback Clayton Thorson to start after he suffered a lower-body injury in the first quarter of last Saturday’s 23-21 victory over Penn State. Backup Zack Oliver ran for a touchdown and threw for a second in a 20-point second quarter as Northwestern won on Jack Mitchell’s 25-yard field goal with nine seconds left.
Justin Jackson will try to build on his career-high 186-yard rushing effort which left him 83 shy of becoming the fifth back in school history to reach 1,000 in back-to-back seasons. The sophomore had been held to 95 yards in his previous three games but has been hard to contain at home, where he’s racked up 732 yards and an average of 5.2 per carry in six games.
Jackson is also 77 yards shy of passing Kain Colter for eighth on the school’s all-time rushing list.
While the Wildcats bear down on a bowl, the Boilermakers (2-7, 1-4) will not participate in the postseason for the third time in as many years under Darrell Hazell, whose job has been under season-long scrutiny as he enters this game with a 6-27 mark that includes three victories against FCS schools.
Purdue was unable to build on the biggest win of his tenure, getting routed 48-14 at home by Illinois last Saturday one week after a surprising 55-45 victory over Nebraska. A Boilermakers offense that played turnover-free and rolled up 457 yards against the Cornhuskers reverted to form against the Illini, finishing with 263 yards and a pair of giveaways, while the defense was gashed for a season-worst 382 rushing yards and 595 overall.
Trying to slow down Jackson could prove too much for a Boilermakers run defense that ranks 107th among FBS teams at 205.1 yards allowed per game. He had a 68-yard scoring run and finished with 147 yards and two touchdowns when Northwestern rolled to a 38-14 victory at Purdue on Nov. 22.
"A lot has to do with the maturity of the football team, being able to handle that adverse situation early in football games," Hazell said when asked about his team’s inconsistency. "I think if you can get a spark, that will get things to start to roll, but we need that spark on Saturday in some phase of that game early."