When: 12:00 p.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
All-Time Series: Purdue leads 50-28-1
Last Meeting: Northwestern 38-14, in 2014
Line: Northwestern -16.0
A week after winning a separation game against Penn State with a backup quarterback, Northwestern must defend against a letdown vs. Purdue in order to keep hopes alive for a possible division championship and a major bowl game. Purdue has been inconsistent, but plays solidly some weeks against better competition, which is precisely the type of team Northwestern is.
Will Purdue regain the advantage and show another step in the right direction with a third Big Ten win in Darrell Hazell’s still young tenure in West Lafayette? Or will Northwestern head into a huge game next weekend against Wisconsin with continued momentum? Let’s count to five and preview this matchup.
1 Burning Question: Can Purdue generate enough offense against a competent defense to win against a ranked team?
Purdue has played well in spots this season, as mentioned above. However, those spots against teams like Michigan State and Nebraska have something in common: a defense which is not dominant. Michigan State ranks 8th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and 9th in the Big Ten in total defense, while Nebraska ranks 10th in the conference in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. Those are defenses that most teams will produce at least an effective day against.
Northwestern, albeit only a couple of spots higher in the conference rankings for defense compared to Michigan State, is statistically a big leap better than the Spartans. Outside a mid-season swoon against Michigan and Iowa, the Wildcats have been completely dominant, which has led to the 7-2 record and national ranking this season.
Purdue should not give up a ton of points, but teams like Stanford, Penn State, and Duke did not either and still lost. The key is generating offense, and that will be the major question facing Hazell’s staff and players on Saturday.
2 Key Stats:
— 190.7 and 205.1. That’s the rushing offense average for Northwestern and the rushing defense average for Purdue, respectively. This puts the Wildcats in the top 3 of the conference rankings in this department, while Purdue is well-established in last place. Likewise, Purdue also ranks last in rushing offense (135.1 yards per game), while Northwestern gives up only 143 rushing yards per contest. That spells bad news for the Boilers in what looks to be a defensive slog of a game, as keeping the defense off the field to avoid being worn out will be critical late in the game.
— 43% That’s Northwestern’s 3rd down conversion rate and also Purdue’s opponent 3rd down conversion rate. Despite all of the offensive struggles for Northwestern this season, this team is good in clutch moments and good at avoiding mistakes and negative plays that lead to tough 3rd-and-long situations. Much like the rushing stats above, this indicates Northwestern tends to keeps drives alive, and Purdue also struggles to get off the field. On the opposite side, for comparison, PU picks up only 35% of 3rd downs while NU gives up only 31% 3rd down conversions. Again, unless this becomes an unexpected track meet, the key stats favor the #B1GCats.
3 Key Players:
Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB – It’s unclear if starting quarterback Clayton Thorsen will be playing or healthy enough to be effective, which means the offense will once again be dominated by Jackson and the running game. He’s proven capable of carrying the load in these situations, including last week with a 180 yard performance against Penn State’s talented defensive front. Purdue has to key on slowing Jackson down, but that will be easier said than done with the talent the Boilermakers have on this year’s defense.
Danny Ezechukwu, Purdue LB – While he does not lead the Boilermakers in tackles this season (that honor belongs to SS Leroy Clark), Ezechukwu will be the most important player on the field for Purdue against the Wildcats. The linebackers must read plays correctly and not get caught blocked out of or overrunning plays to avoid the big chunks of yards that will flip this game in Northwestern’s favor. Expect a big day statistically for him and the other linebackers regardless of how the unit plays, but this will be the line of defense that determines whether Purdue hangs close and has a chance to win.
Solomon Vault, Northwestern KR – Not only does Vault have one of the best names in the conference, he also is one of only six players in the NCAA with two or more kickoff returns for touchdowns. These have come at critical times in the closest games of the season, including during last week’s game at Penn State. While it is likely too much to expect lightning to strike two weeks in a row, Purdue does not boast one of the better kick coverage units. Whenever Purdue finds a score in this game and has the opportunity to kick off, it simply cannot afford to let Vault provide points or the good field position that leads to easy answers for Northwestern.
4 Bold Prognostications:
Northwestern outgains Purdue by over 100 yards – This would not be such a surprise considering how positive the reviews above of the Wildcats have been, but Northwestern ranks last in the conference with only 339 yards per game. With this game being in the friendly confines of Ryan Field, I expect this to be one of the best days of the season on offense, regardless of who is playing quarterback. Thus, Purdue surprisingly ends up with a much less effective day than normal, and not effective enough to win against a ranked opponent.
Both teams turn the ball over twice – It appears that this game will be all about the running game and field position, but I expect about half of the points will be scored off turnovers on a sloppy day for both teams. If Zach Oliver plays, that will lead to one more turnover than usual for Northwestern, while Purdue is averaging more than two turnovers a game already. That won’t change against the high quality NU defense.
Markell Jones will score the only Purdue touchdown(s) – I say touchdown(s) because our staff has some discrepancy on how well Purdue will fare in this game. Jones has been one huge bright spot in this year’s freshman class, averaging 5.51 yards per carry and going for 8 touchdowns on the season. He will again be the best option Purdue has against a quality Northwestern defense, but he will find a way to get his team into the end zone on Saturday. A promising season continues for this future star.
The score will be 3-0 or 0-0 after the first half – In a game dictated by field position and running against touch defenses, it can take a while for the defenses to wear down and let opponents have scoring opportunities. Plus, I expect both teams to be sloppy with the ball, perhaps in the red zone early. Thus, this game should be very ugly at halftime, with maybe a field goal for one team, if any points at all. The second half should be far more entertaining, however.
5 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Northwestern 24-13 (73-19 overall; 41-50 ATS)
Dave: Northwestern 24-7 (75-17 overall; 48-42 ATS)
Greg: Northwestern 31-13 (68-26 overall; 50-40 ATS)
Matt: Northwestern 28-13 (73-19 overall; 53-37 ATS)
Phil: Northwestern 28-10 (27-12 overall; 14-22 ATS) *joined in Week 5
2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know
What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected.
It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line.
All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams.
5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten
That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game.
Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame.
Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.
4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance
It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances.
Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game.
OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013.
A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy.
3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game
The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting.
Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having.
It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season.
As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year.
Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…
2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season
One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year.
Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13.
Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis?
1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game
A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time.
There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016.
In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team.
How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day.
WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena
After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season.
On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener.
Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside.
Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win
Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon.
The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.
It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program.
It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football.
The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.
Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.
Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day.
But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers.
The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers.
Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game.
But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.
But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play.
Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time.
Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own.
It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt.
This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six.
Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern.
The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh.
For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players.
The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility.
Thorson dials up best against MSU once again
As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing.
That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games.
History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes.
It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite.
At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense.
Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game.
Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for.
Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too.
But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game.
Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter.
It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game.
He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19.
The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play.
Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well.