Both Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) and Purdue (1-3, 0-0) enter their matchup in West Lafayette wanting to stay out of the Big Ten basement heading into the crucial middle stretch of the 2009 season.
The Wildcats are coming off of consecutive blown fourth quarter leads and are looking to get back into the postseason hunt.
Meanwhile, Purdue is looking to establish its footing under first year coach Danny Hope (the fourth of five new head coaches NU faces in the first six weeks of the 2009 season) after dropping a heartbreaker to in-state rival Notre Dame last Saturday night.
On defense, both teams have struggled despite having seemingly strong units coming into the year. NU ranks 87th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 27.5 points per game, while Purdue is allowing over 30 points and 400 yards per game.
The Boilermakers and the Wildcats are both looking to utilize the talent that they have on defense to turn things around and turn up the takeaway rate (NU has just seven on the year while Purdue has eight).
Meanwhile, both teams have offensive stars that have seemingly come out of nowhere. For the 'Cats, that guy is QB Mike Kafka. He has completed over 70 percent of his passes this season and thrown for 1,049 yards and five touchdowns despite being considered just a running quarterback.
Purdue has discovered talented sophomore running back Ralph Bolden, who has already amassed 488 rushing yards and is averaging over six yards per carry in Purdue's new run-based attack.
These teams have both faltered in recent weeks and are looking to break losing streaks of two (NU) and three (Purdue). Something has to give in this matchup that looks like a potential shootout on paper.
The winner will likely be the team that can get their defense in gear first and can win the turnover battle. Both teams have a minus-0.75 turnover margin per game in 2009, so something has to give there, too.
Expect a relatively high-scoring and hard fought battle between these two teams who both need a win to stay out of the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
Northwestern will be looking to spoil another team's homecoming after doing so multiple times in 2008, while Purdue is seeking revenge for the 'Cats' big win last year in Tiller's final season.
Opening Line: Purdue by 6.5.
Who Should Win
Purdue. The Boilermakers are playing at home and feature a potent running game. Breakout sophomore Bolden has already racked up 488 yards and four TDs (6.2 yards per carry).
They also have Jaycen Taylor returning from an injury. Taylor has contributed another 112 yards and three touchdowns.
Northwestern's defense is yielding over 4.5 yards per carry this season and seemingly hasn't been able to takle over most of the last three games. That alone gives the Boilers a good chance to run their way to victory.
Purdue's defense looks basically as bad as Northwestern's. They've been burned for over 30 points per game this year and rank 108th nationally in total defense (421.5 yards per game yielded).
Meanwhile, the NU offense has shown that it can effectively move the ball through the air, ranking 16th nationally with 286.3 yards per game passing. Mike Kafka has been proficient with his arm, completing over 72 percent of his passes this season.
If the Wildcats can limit turnovers on offense, they have a very good chance of knocking off Purdue on the road.
What to Look For
Northwestern Offense / Purdue Defense
After opening up the playbook following two weeks of running the ball against lesser opponents, NU's passing game is moving the ball fairly well in 2009. The Wildcats rank 22nd nationally in pass efficiency.
The 'Cats are 31st nationally, averaging 33 points per game. And despite the lack of a running game over the past two weeks (under 100 yards per game rushing even after removing sack yardage), NU is 36th nationally in total offense (416.8 yards per game).
The bugaboo for the NU offense, though, has been turnovers. A late interception against Syracuse and two late fumbles against Minnesota cost NU the chance to win those games after the 'Cats carried leads into the fourth quarter on both occasions.
And against both Minnesota and Eastern Michigan, Kafka interceptions in the red zone have cost the Wildcats precious points.
Despite a relatively poor showing against Minnesota, NU is still converting 56 percent of its third downs and has been able to move the ball down the field methodically quite often.
All of this, again, is despite the lack of a featured running back and a consistent running game that has been seemingly abandoned the past two weeks.
This has created quite a problem that has led to the aforementioned turnover issues, which is the opposing pass rush. Without a running game to worry about, opponents have sent their pass rushers in for the kill and have succeeded.
Kafka has been sacked 10 times for minus-84 yards on the year. And that doesn't count times he was hurried, hit after throwing, or forced to scramble.
The offensive line will face yet another test against Purdue, who feature pass rushing specialist DE Ryan Kerrigan, who already has two sacks on the year.
Senior LB Jason Werner is also creating trouble, as he has three sacks, eight total tackles for loss, an interception, and a forced fumble.
The Boilers also have S Torri Williams, who is second on the team in tackles and is a key member of the secondary.
But, the Boilermaker defense, despite all of their experience and talent, have fallen short in 2009 and are allowing yards by the dozen. They rank near the bottom nationally in most defensive statistical categories. The worst is in total defense where they come in at 108th nationally.
They are also 93rd nationally in pass defense, yielding 244 yards per game through the air, which bodes well for NU's passing-based attack.
The key to the game will be whether the NU offensive line can hold up against the Purdue pass rush. If so, expect Kafka to pick apart Purdue and NU to amass quite a few passing yards.
If not, expect more turnovers and an implosion similar to the fourth quarter last week (where NU had just eight yards of offense and two fumbles).
Northwestern Defense / Purdue Offense
Northwestern's defense has been having troubles of its own as of late, allowing teams to do almost anything they want against them.
Against Eastern Michigan and Syracuse, long plays doomed the 'Cats, and against Minnesota, a churning ground game and NU's lack of tackling allowed the Gophers to convert over 50 percent of their third down chances.
Purdue has converted from a pass-first spread attack (Tiller's signature offense) to more of a ground-based attack with sophomore standout Bolden as the primary ballcarrier.
They've been rather successful, too, averaging 32.5 points per game in 2009 and racking up 176.5 rushing yards per game. Senior QB Joey Elliot has also proved to be consistent, throwing for 963 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Wildcats' defense must work to improve its tackling, especially by the front seven, in order to try to contain Purdue's rushing attack and force Elliot to throw the football.
If they can do that, good things can happen, as Elliot is completing just over 60 percent of his passes but has six interceptions on the year. The Boilers have also lost five fumbles on the year.
The key to the game on this side of the ball is NU's run defense against Purdue's Bolden. The Wildcats look like they have a long way to come on the tackling front and finding a way to get off those offensive line blocks, but it is possible considering what this unit was able to do a year ago.
If Northwestern can't stop the Purdue running game, things could get ugly quickly for NU, as it has in recent meetings when the 'Cats couldn't stop the Boilermaker running backs. Last year, the key to NU's win was forcing turnovers after taking a big lead in the first half.
And in case the 'Cats manage to contain the ground game, Purdue can always go to the air. They have a slew of more than competent receivers, including junior Keith Smith, who leads the Boilers in receptions with 12 and yardage with 358.
Special teams can always factor into a game. NU must be on the watch for Purdue kick and punt returner Aaron Valentin, who averages 15.3 yards per punt return (he has a TD already this year) and 20.6 yards per kick return.
The only issue there has been fumbles or muffs on returns, with two of those directly contributing to a home loss against Northern Illinois two weeks ago.
The Wildcats have been vulnerable to kickoff returns, with Minnesota averaging 26.2 yards per kick return.
The 'Cats have allowed 7.3 yards per punt return as well (on just three returns; 11 of NU's punts have not been returned). NU's kickoff coverage and kickoff distance must improve to keep opponents deep in their own end, something the 2008 'Cats did fairly well.
On the other hand, NU's return game has been lacking, to say the least. NU is 95th nationally on kickoff returns and 101st nationally on punt returns.
This has forced NU to start many drives deep in its own end this season, and puts NU behind the eight-ball in the field position game relatively early. Hopefully NU can find the right return men and blocking scheme to finally break one.
Both teams have fairly reliable kickers. NU's Stefan Demos is 15-of-16 on extra points and 4-of-4 on FG attempts this year. Purdue's Carson Wiggs is 16-of-17 on extra points and 2-of-3 on FG attempts, with his only miss beyond 50 yards.
Third Down Conversions: NU saw its very good stats drop a bit last week, but the 'Cats still rank eighth nationally, converting over 56 percent of their third downs, while allowing just 35 percent of opponents' third down conversions.
Purdue is squarely in the middle of the pack with a 40 percent conversion rate, while on defense they are a disappointing 90th, allowing a 43 percent conversion rate. Hopefully, this translates into some long NU scoring drives.
Spread Offense: The 'Cats continue to spread it around to many different receivers, with 13 different players catching passes this year and five different guys accounting for TD grabs. No player accounts for more than 20 percent of receptions (Zeke Markshausen leads NU with 19 receptions, or just over 19 percent).
Second Quarter Scoring: NU is outscoring its opponents 58-24 in the second period, while Purdue has been outscored 56-27 in that quarter this season.
Two-Deep Changes: NU saw no major changes in this week's depth chart, although backup linebackers David Arnold (who was injured for the first three weeks of the season) and true freshman Roderick Goodlow have moved into the backup outside linebacker slots, overtaking Stone Pinckney and Bryce McNaul.
Goodlow is one of three true freshman on NU's two-deep. The other two, RB Arby Fields and OL Patrick Ward, have already seen the field this year and have played in all four games.
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, questionable), RB Stephan Simmons (leg, questionable), OL Desmond Taylor (illness, questionable).
The biggest question mark on NU's current injury list is Simmons, who has sat out the last two weeks with a leg injury. The 'Cats could definitely use his explosiveness and experience as NU is averaging just 95.5 yards rushing over the past two games (with sacks excluded).
LB Nate Williams, CB Sherrick McManis, RB Jeravin Matthews, WR Sidney Stewart, and LB David Arnold all returned to action on Saturday.
DE Corey Wootton, S Brad Phillips, LB Bryce McNaul, and DT Corbin Bryant all came out of the game at various points with minor dings, but all returned to action later.
Thankfully, most NU players have seemingly recovered after the list grew very long in the game against Syracuse. Even with key components back, though, NU fell short last week.
Purdue: DE Nickcaro Golding (dismissed from team), OL Eric Hedstrom (questionable, shoulder), LS Andy Huffman (questionable, arm), WR Tommie Thomas (questionable, ankle), TE Colton McKey (questionable, knee).
Purdue has no major injuries to speak of (most are backups or special teamers).
Prediction: Northwestern 35, Purdue 31
Although there have been plenty jumping off of the NU bandwagon, I'll stick with my preseason prediction and say that the Wildcats will find a way to put things back together and end up with a win.
The keys are the NU OL giving Kafka just enough time to get rid of the football, and the NU defense tackling better than it has over the past two weeks. I predict NU will do just well enough in both areas to pull off a close victory.
Coach Fitz is a fundamentals-oriented guy, especially on defense, and it's hard to see him letting the 'Cats' tackling skills continue to slip.
And the offensive line has too much young talent to continue their issues. If anything, the younger guys will get thrown on the field as a wakeup call (which has already happened to some extent).
Even with NU's porous defense over the past two weeks, many of those issues have been correctable. Meanwhile Purdue's defense has looked fairly poor all season long.
This game could very well go the other way, especially if NU can't stop Purdue's ground game, but I expect NU to use this game to turn its season around.