West Lafayette, IN – On the eve of the 2018 NCAA football season for the Purdue Boilermakers, there are a lot of questions that remain for both Purdue and the Northwestern Wildcats. Purdue comes into this game riding a lot of momentum from the way they ended the season by winning three of their last four to secure a bowl berth. That one loss was to this Northwestern team in Evanston. The Boilers dropped that game by a score of 23-13. While that score may look like it was a close game, it never really was. Northwestern was in firm control for the entire game. It was 20-0 before Purdue was able to find the endzone on a touchdown from Elijah Sindelar. The Wildcats were able to play that grind it out type of game where they just asserted their will and then rode the running game and their defense to victory.
Purdue is hoping for a different outcome this season. Not only are they seeking revenge for a loss last season. This game sets the bar for how this season will go. Going back to last season, Northwestern is the hottest team in the country and has the longest active winning streak at eight. The interesting thing for this game, however, is that despite having all of the off-season and training camp to prepare, both Purdue and Northwestern have not publicly announced their starting quarterbacks. Both Purdue’s Sindelar and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson are coming off torn ACLs. While both have been medically cleared to practice and have been seen taking reps, both haven’t seen full game speed situations since their surgeries. Purdue also has 5th year senior David Blough who is also coming off season ending ankle surgery but at least played in the spring game. With both programs holding their cards close, all we can do is take a guess.
While quarterback is certainly a big question for the Boilers, the defense is probably a larger one. Only returning four of their eleven starters from last season leaves some big shoes for head coach Jeff Brohm and co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt to fill. The front seven will be very green as they only have two players who played significant minutes returning in Lorenzo Neal and Markus Bailey. Purdue was unable to turn the Wildcats over last year. They will need to find some players on the defensive side of the ball as the Wildcats have some playmakers in Thorson and and running back Jeremy Larkin. This is a seasoned team that knows how to win football games and Purdue will need to come up with stops this time around if they want to be in the game at the end.
What needs to happen for Purdue to win the game you ask? That answer is two fold and pretty much stating the obvious. Purdue played well last season when the downfield passing game was clicking. They were able to take shots and gain huge chunks of yards while keeping their defense out of bad positions. Sindelar gives Purdue the best opportunity for the down field type of passing that Brohm has been adamant about this off season as an area that needs to improve. Adding highly touted freshman burner Rondale Moore should help in that regard. If you blink you will miss this kid he is that fast. The other is on the defensive side of the ball. Like Sindelar, Thorson is coming off a torn ACL and has appeared to taken a longer time to heal than Sindelar. While he is taking reps there seems to be some concern about how ready to go he is. If he is the Thorson of last season, Purdue will need to get pressure on him while keeping him in the pocket. Thorson has the ability to take off with his legs and hurt you. While he isn’t like some of the running quarterbacks Purdue faced last year, sometimes the ones you don’t expect to run are the more dangerous.
We are one day away and the excitement on campus is palpable. Even for a Thursday night game, ticket sales are still expected to be above 50,000 sold. Two years ago that would have been the high for the season and Purdue still has two top ten teams coming to West Lafayette later this season. Purdue needs this game in more ways than one. Obviously they want to start the season with a win, especially over a conference and division opponent. A win tomorrow would also be a chance to prove that the transformation we saw happen last year wasn’t a fluke. Come out and beat a Wildcat team that could contend for the division crown would be quite the opening statement.
Nick Konkel is the Purdue Boilermakers beat writer for Indiana Sports Report. You can follow him on Twitter @NickKonkelISR and Indiana Sports Report @IndySportsRep