Purdue must contend with Northwestern team that’s ‘feeling it right now’
Northwestern’s 31-24 overtime win at Nebraska last Saturday was significant for several reasons.
It extended the Wildcats’ conference winning streak to four games after an 0-2 start. Northwestern is now second in the Big Ten West Division behind undefeated and eighth-ranked Wisconsin.
The victory also moved the Wildcats into the rankings of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which deemed Northwestern the 25th-best team in the country.
And, beyond all that, last week’s victory was part of an unprecedented milestone as Northwestern became the first team in FBS history with three consecutive overtime victories.
And here’s another first: The Wildcats (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) host Purdue (4-5, 2-4) on Saturday in the first November night game in either school’s history.
While Northwestern hopes it won’t need another overtime to claim its fifth straight win, players did acknowledge a benefit to the experience gained during the historic overtime streak.
“There’s definitely some confidence,” freshman running back Jeremy Larkin said about going into overtime last week. “I would say that my mindset going into it was just, ‘What can I do to help this team come out with a victory?’ It was pretty much just going out there and doing my job.”
The Boilermakers are coming off a 29-10 victory against Illinois in which quarterback David Blough suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
Despite the injury to Blough, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows the potential of Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s offensive schemes, which include a number of trick plays and spread situations.
“They’re playing at a very high level,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m really impressed with them on tape. … They know what they’re doing. They know what they want to do and they know how they want to do it. It’s going to be another tough, hard-fought game.”
Brohm, who is in his first year as Purdue’s head coach, has an 11-1 overall record in the month of November. He echoed Fitzgerald’s level of respect.
“They are sound,” Brohm said of Northwestern. “They play hard and they don’t beat themselves. They are well coached. The coaching staff and the players have been together for a long time. They know what it takes to win in this conference, and they normally find a way.”
Blough, who had regained his starting job from Elijah Sindelar, suffered a gruesome dislocated ankle in last week’s victory. That will sideline Blough through the spring and gives Sindelar the job the rest of the season.
Sindelar has split time for much of 2017, with the hot hand getting most of the action. He led the team to two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to secure the 29-10 win against the Illini and enters this week’s game with some momentum.
The most likely backup now is Jared Sparks, but there’s a problem. Sparks made the switch to wide receiver this season, and the coaching staff is inclined to keep him there. He’ll continue to practice with the wideouts but will get additional work under center in case an injury presses him into action.
“We’ll have to make sure he’s ready to go in there with at least a small package of things that he feels comfortable with and go from there,” Brohm said. “I think he’ll be up to the challenge. I think he’s ready to do whatever we ask him in order to help us win.”
Northwestern’s passing defense is the worst in the Big Ten, surrendering an average of 265.7 yards per game.
Purdue freshman quarterback Nick Sipe is also under consideration, but the team is hoping to avoid that scenario because they want him to redshirt. Barring an injury this week that would cause Sindelar to miss some games, that appears to still be the plan.
Purdue likely will lean on the running game even more. This is an area in which Purdue has depth. Richie Worship and D.J. Knox have been the big names in recent weeks, but Markell Jones is winding into form, too. Tario Fuller is nearly ready to return from a September foot injury, but it won’t be this week.
For Northwestern, quarterback Clayton Thorson ranks fourth in the conference in passing yards per game (254.1) and holds the school record for wins by a starting quarterback (23) following the victory at Nebraska.
With a home game against Minnesota on Nov. 18 and then a regular-season finale at Illinois, more winning could be in Thorson’s immediate future.
“They have a great history of fighting to the end and getting the most out of their guys,” Brohm said of Northwestern. “It’s a credit to Coach Fitzgerald. We have our hands full. They are hot and are feeling it right now.”