A Clear Difference
Northwestern is the #25 team in the nation, but they're not the most imposing program. They did beat a strong Michigan State team this year, but also got creamed by Duke. So they have some talent, mostly at RB, but they aren't a world-beater. It would be an upset for Purdue to win, but Northwestern is the type of team that could lose to anyone.
Those who have been fans of Purdue prior to the Hazell era may recognize a bit of the Danny Hope era in this Wildcats team. A team good enough to beat those they should expect to beat, but bad enough to lose to the truly good teams and occasionally, to the truly poor teams as well. And while being a fan of such a program can get frustrating, the Hazell era put in perspective what the definition of a bad team actually is. That perspective does give us a greater appreciation for the accomplishments of a team that gets 6-8 wins a season, and earns a 3rd week of December bowl game.
When Northwestern picked a tipped Sindelar pass off with 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter the last, weak breaths of Purdue's comeback ceased and Purdue found themselves staring down a 23-13 loss in a game full of missed opportunities and squandered momentum. That, however, not being a anomalous event this season focuses our perspective on this team. They can do some fun things from time to time, but at their essence they are a fundamentally flawed team, a squad at a disadvantage from the moment they leave the locker room, able to compete only through effort and ingenuity. Both of which matter, but neither of which are enough.
It's been discussed constantly all season, but Purdue's weakest units are its offensive line and its wide receivers. Those deficiencies were on full display Saturday afternoon. Paradoxically, Purdue relies more on its wide receivers because of its OL issues. Some might take issue with Purdue only attempting to rush the ball 22 times, vice 60 pass attempts, and that's a fair concern. But the OL could not get any sort of push up front (evidenced by two failed 4th-and-short rushing attempts). Knox, Worship, and others were often hit before they even approached the line of scrimmage. DJ Knox was Purdue's leading rusher with 22 total yards on six attempts. 16 of those 22 yards came on one rush.
So rushing the ball wasn't accomplishing anything except running down the clock (a greater concern as Purdue found themselves on the short end of a 20-0 deficit) and making 3 and outs the norm. So to the passing game they went.
It's the subject of such debate, both within private communications between us here at Boiled Sports, and within the greater Purdue fan base, as to what David Blough's VORP is with respect to Elijah Sindelar. I personally think Sindelar is more decisive and a better passer, while Blough is the better playmaker and adds a very helpful dimension with his feet (especially with a poor offensive line). So what does that translate to? Would Purdue have won this game with Blough behind center? No idea, and frankly I find little use in the question.
Because right now we are rid-or-die with Sindelar, and the limitations of his supporting cast aside, he has to be the one to make the plays. And he had his chances to do so tonight, with 60 pass attempts, and the fate of the game put in his hands in the second half.
And despite a rough start to the game, Sindelar played quite well late in the third period and through the fourth. Starting with the possession that would result in Purdue's first touchdown (the possession starting with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter), Sindelar went 25-33 passing, with two TDs and one INT (off a deflected ball). That's pretty damn good! His receivers were catching the mostly short passes over the middle, and gaining enough yards after catch to chew up yardage and give the offense some life. Jared Sparks in particular was impressive, finishing the game with 11 receptions for 130 yards. That was a performance that has been rare this season, and in fact, in recent memory as well.
So Sindelar, who finished with 376 yards passing, showed what Brohm and his staff liked so much about it, and yet it still wasn't enough. The defense stiffened late (allowing only two FGs in the second half), but still struggled at times. Special teams was poor again, with a missed field goal and allowing a punt return for a TD. When you start with such a talent deficit, you can't further shoot yourself in the foot by committing unforced errors.
The tale of the tape today, as it has been all season, has been the stark talent gulf between Purdue and their opponent. While Northwestern will never be confused for Ohio State, they have the bodies, and the depth, to be a quality, top-25 team. Purdue does not. Maybe they have some of the pieces, maybe they have the schemes, maybe they have effort and energy, but that's not enough.
Purdue has another top-25 opponent on the road next week when they face Iowa. Probably the only thing I'm looking forward to with that game is the mid-game wave to the children in the adjacent hospital. The talent differential will probably be apparent then as well.