Feeling Catty – The Northwestern Predicto
If it feels like Purdue has barely played football over the past month, it’s because they barely have! But unlike 2013, this is because they didn’t have games scheduled rather than having them scheduled and just not showing up. Purdue returns to the field of play this weekend against the enigma that is Northwestern football. Will we see the Northwestern who (literally) fell on their ass trying to beat Michigan 11-10 in one of the more unwatchable games in recent years? Or the Northwestern who won at a ranked Notre Dame team despite trailing by 11 in the waning minutes?
Northwestern is 4-6 and haven’t alternated wins and losses yet this year. Two losses followed by a three-game win streak, following by a four-game losing streak, followed by last week against ND. They only have four wins, but they won by 23 at Penn State and they gave Wisconsin their only conference loss. Oh, but they lost at home to Cal, Northern Illinois, and Michigan (seriously) and got destroyed at Iowa. Does any of that make any sense?
Pat Fitzgerald has turned out to be a pretty good coach in the sense that his teams are always a threat and almost always seem to be in bowl games. Of course, you could say the same about Joe Tiller and he never quite made it
over the proverbial hump, either. Unlike Tiller, Fitz did manage to win ten games just two years ago. Then the Cats started 4-0 last year and GameDay came to town. Then they blew what seemed like a sure win late and are now 5-13 since that 4-0 start to 2013. I think it’s safe to say that being a Northwestern football fan right now is a little insanity-inducing.
Talk about something difficult to predict. But hey, the boys aren’t afraid. Away we go.
The Swamy sez:
It’s weird to think that a 3-7 team can have a “biggest game of the season” against a non-rival after they've been eliminated from bowl contention...but I really do think this Northwestern game might be one of the most crucial games for Coach Hazell's Purdue tenure. The Boilermakers could either use this week to: 1) seal Hazell's first victory against a quality opponent (and hopefully set up a favorable bucket game), or 2) take a big step back, get beat by a Northwestern team that is better than their 4-6 record, and finish the season 3-9 (very bad) or 4-8 (just regular bad).
And after last year, a regular bad would be welcome. Winning 4 games after barely beating ISU in 2013 would qualify as progress. But, as J eloquently put it, progress that doesn't show up in the win column can only be enjoyed for so long. Even after the injuries, we've seen a high octane offense thrive under a new quarterback and invigorated playcalling, an offensive line that has looked fantastic against aggressive defensive schemes, a bend-don't-break defense against legitimately scary weapons, a kicker who could be Carson Wiggs 2.0, and a return game spurred by (as we've been frequently reminded) the fastest man in the Big Ten.
Unfortunately, we haven't seen all of that in the same game. We haven't even seen three of those things in the same game. Purdue has all the pieces to be a 5 win team in this Big Ten, and I think we shouldn't be satisfied with anything less.
On a final Senior-night related note, it seems like this group is really special to Coach Hazell. They delivered his first Big Ten victory (albeit over a barely-qualifying Illinois) and seemed to rally around Austin Appleby to help change the locker room culture after the last few depressing years. I get the sense that a victory this week would mean a ton to this coaching staff...more than the usual coach-speak senior week victory would, anyway.
You know, what the hell. I'm feeling good, and it's senior night after a bye week. Let's take the Boilers on a game winning field goal, with minimal impact made by either team's passing attack. Predicting a Purdue win goes against most logical thoughts (as NW's defense has actually been fairly impressive), but I'm ignoring that side of my brain for the time being. Let the gut feelings win! (This clearly means Purdue's getting blown out by 40, but c'est la vie.)
Spread: PICK (Opened at Northwestern -2)
Purdue 21 Northwestern 18
Surprisingly, this has been one of the harder games to predict for me, given the ways that Purdue and Northwestern have changed prior to and during the 2014 season. Purdue was coming off an abysmal season, Northwestern was poised for another mediocre run with a possible bowl game in its sights ... and then Venric Mark transferred, and the Wildcats' offense seemed to take a significant hit. So did Purdue's, after Western and Central Michigan made the Boilers look more like a MAC team than a Big Tenteen team. Northwestern crushed Penn State and knocked off Wisconsin, and Purdue beat Illinois to get in the W column in the conference ... but this game still looked ominous. Then Appleby took over for Etling, and the Boilers didn't get another W, but the offense looked much, much better. In the meantime, Northwestern also went straight downhill, with a four-game losing streak culminating in the infamous M00N game. (In case you missed it, Michigan is not good this season.)
And then there was last week. A team that hadn't put up more than 24 points in any game this season - including against a I-AA opponent - scored 40 points on Angry Man's Irish in South Bend in regulation, then finished off the win with a field goal in OT. As enjoyable as that was for me to see, it does change the focus of tomorrow's game, especially given Greg Hudson's struggles to field a solid defense against better competition. Trevor Siemian didn't become Otto Graham, but the Boilers haven't held a I-A opponent under 21 points since Illinois last season (insert Tim Beckman joke here). As odd as it sounds to say that Purdue may have needed the bye week to prepare for Northwestern, it could be the case, at least on defense.
Offensively, the significant improvement from Etling to Appleby should at least give the Good Guys a fighting chance. (I can't believe I'm writing this about Purdue hosting Northwestern.) Unfortunately, Purdue still doesn't have a receiver with half the yards that Anthrop accumulated prior to his injury, and no one, not even Hunt, is near Anthrop's 16.2 per catch as a significant part of the offense. If the Boilers are going to keep up with the points they concede to the 'Cats, Appleby will have to continue to find the remaining explosive players on a regular basis. Northwestern is a bit worse at giving up explosive plays (66th) than methodical drives (53rd), and that might play to Purdue's advantage.
Defensively, Purdue might be able to seal this one simply by hanging back and letting the Wildcats beat themselves. Northwestern's played a lot of good defenses, but their production has still been terrible: 100th in available yards gained, 124th in explosive plays (yes, there are teams new to I-A football who have a more explosive offense than Northwestern's), and 102nd in value drives. They do have a ton of drives that run 10 or more plays - they're 16th in that category - but it's easy to put together a long drive for no points if you have a lot of short plays. Northwestern is averaging just 4.4 yards per play ... Siemian has an AY/A of just 4.7 yards per attempt, with 6 TDs and 10 picks on the season. I can't explain how that offense put up 547 yards against Notre Dame, so let's just say that was a wonderful one-time thing and assume that nothing from last week translates to this week.
Nope, can't do it. I finally dug into EsPN's site to find where their PickCenter info for college football is (it is not linked from the upcoming games, because that would be useful), and found that they have Purdue as a 1.5-point favorite, but suggest Northwestern will cover. I think sites that have this game as even are more accurate: for the different paths that these teams have taken, Northwestern seems slightly better, and Purdue doesn't have enough of an advantage at home to completely outweigh that. Up until last week, I would have expected two easy Purdue wins and a 5-7 record. Now ... I'd still be disappointed if the Boilers can't pull this out, but the really important game is next week.
Northwestern 16 Purdue 14
The Railroad Tie sez:
This one isn't complicated. You wanna show Purdue fans that your program has taken a significant step forward? Beat Northwestern, and then the only ones complaining about a lack of progress will be those unfortunate souls to whom misery is a natural comfort.
Predictions are mixed, and with good reason. Northwestern isn't very good this season, but they are 4-6 and have beaten Notre Dame and Wisconsin. I watched them lose to Michigan from a treadmill at my gym, and after much deliberation, I'm pretty sure that the source of my nausea was in fact their pathetic excuse for an offense, and not the fact that I was working out for the first time in months.
They pass the ball slightly better than they run it, but their strength is their defense. Don't be mistaken, their defense isn't that great, but it's the best part of their team. Purdue, on the other hand, is coming off a bye week with two games remaining to build some positive momentum for next season. Purdue's biggest problem has been putting all the pieces together; having the offense, defense, and special teams all functional for one game.
Fortunately, I think Northwestern provides an opportunity for Purdue to win, even if they aren't hitting on all cylinders. I'm still not sure who will be catching any passes for Purdue, but I will put my faith in the running game, an in the ability of freshman Ja'Whaun Bentley and the rest of Purdue's mangled defense to stop an anemic Northwestern attack. I have confidence that Purdue will win this game.
Purdue 24 Northwestern 14
We’ve been waiting to see Purdue break through completely under the stewardship of Austin Appleby. As we’ve all noted, there have been vast improvements in the way this football team looks and watching Purdue football is definitely, dare I say, fun again. (Incidentally, it’s it amazing how the barometer for “fun” works? We’ve been subjected to so much unwatchable football in recent years that losing is fine as long as it’s competitive losing.) But I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the point where moral victories alone aren’t enough. Or maybe it’s more that there are no moral victories left without actual victories. There’s no way to lose to Northwestern or IU and find a silver lining – these need to be wins if we’re going to say things are moving forward.
Is Purdue capable? Of course. And it’s nice to be able to say that. It’s nice to feel like these should be victories. However, there’s no way Fitzgerald is letting these guys mail anything in – he proved that last week. But is it also possible that there’s no way they can match the intensity level when they’re at a half-filled Ross-Ade? Why yes, that’s also very possible. And we’ve seen from Purdue lately that they are rarely flat anymore coming into games. I’ll give that to this coaching staff. And finally, maybe two weeks to prepare for a 4-6 team will mean Purdue is more than ready to scheme these guys.
Despite trying to talk myself into it, I find this game very worrisome. I also think it’s perhaps the most difficult one to predict all season. I think Purdue needs this win and I think everyone feels they can get this win. But this is always when they yank the rug out from under me.
Northwestern 31 Purdue 27
Playing good teams is tough for bad teams. They get beaten up, they get somewhat demoralized as the bigger team flexes its collective muscle...and they ultimately lose.
Hazell and Purdue didn't get a landmark win this season over a ranked or even a good program...but beating bad teams is better than what they did last year. The next two games are opportunities to beat bad teams and Hazell's boys need to end the season with some confidence. Beating the purple and Hoosiers are good starting points.
Northwestern and Purdue hover around the bottom of the conference in most of the important statistical categories. More importantly, neither team wins all that much.
Northwestern is coming off of their biggest win of the season by far...and has a heartbeat and should be motivated to beat Purdue since they can become bowl eligible by beating two bad teams- Purdue and Illinois.
I like Fitz as a coach, but don't think his motivational skills will be enough as this isn't the Northwestern team's personnel isn't that much better than Purdue's...and Purdue's skilled players are better- yeah, I just said that.
The two-headed monster of Mostert/Hunt go off in their last game at Ross-Ade. AA plays well, but doesn't need to be the story...and the return of Williams is felt immediately.
Good triumphs over purple...as Shoop detractors angrily accept a run-heavy win.
Purdue 31 Northwestern 20