Matchups between the Big Ten and the MAC are usually lopsided, but the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between the Purdue Boilermakers and Western Michigan Broncos isn’t the typical Big Ten-MAC contest.
It should be a great matchup, as the teams are separated by just three spots in the Jeff Sagarin computer rankings.
Neither team has had a particularly impressive season, but that can be said for most teams that end up playing in Detroit in late December.
Even at 6-6, Purdue has to be happy with its progress this season. The Boilermakers doubled their conference win total from last season and ended the year with a solid victory over archrival Indiana.
At 7-5, Western Michigan was among the better teams in the MAC, but the Broncos were once again denied a shot at a conference title, getting thumped 51-22 in their game against eventual champion Northern Illinois.
All in all, both teams should be relatively happy with their results so far.
However, closing out the season with a bowl win would be huge for two programs trying to rise up the standings in their respective conferences.
Western Michigan has one of the best passing offenses in the nation.
Quarterback Alex Carder has continued to develop in his second season as the starter. He’s racked up over 3,200 yards passing and tossed 28 touchdowns, tying him for 12th among all FBS quarterbacks.
Carder has been battling a shoulder injury, but he should be good to go in time for the bowl game.
His top target is Jordan White, who leads the nation with 127 receptions and nearly 140 receiving yards per game.
By the numbers, Purdue’s pass defense looks solid. The Boilermakers allow just over 200 yards per game through the air.
However, that number may have more to do with its schedule than its actual defensive prowess.
The Boilers have faced only one passing offense that ranks in the top 35 in yards per game. That offense, 33rd-ranked Notre Dame, rolled up 551 total yards as Purdue suffered a 38-10 beatdown at home.
Just as the Irish did back in October, the Broncos will have no problem moving the ball through the air.
EDGE: Western Michigan
Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve have split the snaps at quarterback for Purdue this season.
Neither has the skill set to really trouble a defense, but TerBush has been effective enough to earn the bulk of the playing time.
The Boillermakers are 6-2 in games in which TerBush attempts at least 20 passes, but as a team, Purdue has yet to accumulate more than 250 passing yards in a game.
The biggest problem for the Purdue passing game is its inability to stretch defenses vertically.
The Boilers have tallied just 29 passing plays of over 20 yards this season. That mark ranks 87th in the country, behind such offensive juggernauts as North Texas and Florida International.
Much like its opponent, Western Michigan’s pass defense numbers are a bit deceiving.
The Broncos have allowed just 218 yards per game in a pass-happy league, but their game-by-game stats have fluctuated wildly depending on the matchup.
WMU has allowed more than 300 yards passing just as often as it's allowed fewer than 100 yards passing (three times each).
It’s an incredibly odd statistic, but it clearly illustrates that when a team decides to throw on Western Michigan, they're generally successful.
Given that Purdue has shown no inclination that it will test the Western Michigan pass defense, the advantage slants toward the Broncos.
EDGE: Western Michigan
Only eight teams have attempted fewer rushes than the 368 that Western Michigan has tried this season. Tailback Tevin Drake has led the Broncos to a solid 4.15 yards-per-carry average, but it’s clear they are not particularly concerned with establishing a run game.
That sentence should be music to Purdue’s ears.
The Boilermakers have faced three teams that averaged more than five yards per carry this season; each of those teams rolled up at least 287 rushing yards.
Generally, teams that have the ability to run the ball have no problem doing so against Purdue.
That said, Western Michigan doesn’t seem particularly confident in its ability to move the ball on the ground, so the edge here goes to the Boilers.
When both options are available, Purdue would absolutely rather run than pass.
The Boilermakers average 175 rushing yards per game, led by tailback Ralph Bolden. He leads the team with 674 yards, but Bolden is supported by five teammates (including TerBush) that have rushed for over 100 yards on the season.
Western Michigan’s run defense is downright terrible. Four teams have attempted 50 rushes or more against the Broncos. All four have gained at least 200 yards on the ground; two have racked up over 400 yards.
Overall, WMU has allowed a deplorable 5.48 yards per carry this season. That figure ranks 118th out of the 120 FBS teams.
Purdue will certainly attempt to establish a ground game against the Broncos, and if past performance is any indication, the Boilers won’t face much resistance.
Neither squad has a particularly outstanding special teams unit, but Western Michigan is a little bit better in just about every category of the kicking game.
The Broncos average over 41 yards per punt and allow under six yards per return, slightly besting the Boilermakers in each category.
On the opposite side of the ball, Jordan White gives WMU one of the more dangerous punt returners in the nation. White is one of just 10 players in the FBS to average over 13 yards per punt return.
Field goal kicking is essentially a push—both teams convert about 75 percent of their chances.
Purdue has a very good kickoff-return unit, but Western Michigan should be able to neutralize it with a kickoff coverage team that is among the best in the nation. The Broncos allow fewer than 18 yards per kick return.
Western Michigan’s advantages in kick coverage, as well as White’s explosive ability in the return game, will allow the Broncos to control field position in this game.
EDGE: Western Michigan
A matchup between the Big Ten and the MAC usually isn’t a fair fight, but in this case, the advantage is slanted in an unexpected direction.
It’s pretty easy to predict how the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl will play out.
Western Michigan will try to throw the ball. Purdue will try to run the ball. Both teams will be successful.
This matchup will ultimately come down to which team's strength is, well, strongest.
Quite clearly, that strength is Alex Carder, Jordan White and the Western Michigan passing game. That, combined with the Broncos’ likely advantage in field position, will add up to a victory for WMU.
PREDICTION: Western Michigan 28, Purdue 20