The Daily Northwestern

Balk: Don’t sleep on Purdue

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Justin Jackson runs with the ball. The senior running back helped lead the Wildcats to a one-sided win over Purdue last fall.

Justin Jackson runs with the ball. The senior running back helped lead the Wildcats to a one-sided win over Purdue last fall.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Justin Jackson runs with the ball. The senior running back helped lead the Wildcats to a one-sided win over Purdue last fall.

Tim Balk, Gameday Editor

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It was hard not to feel a little bit bad for Purdue last November. Northwestern parachuted into West Lafayette and jolted the Boilermakers in a 45-17 blowout that sent most of an already pitiful crowd filing out of Ross-Ade Stadium eons before the final whistle.

After the game, the Wildcats were all smiles, just one float in a parade of teams that rolled past the ultimately 3-9 Boilermakers. NU’s offense, fresh off a 7-point outing in a loss to Wisconsin, made mincemeat of a Purdue defense that had given up 106 points in its previous two games. “Losing’s not fun,” then-junior running back Justin Jackson said after the beatdown. “We definitely needed this game.”

But that was then. This is now.

Twelve months later, the Boilermakers are still no overwhelming power; they enter the weekend with a middling 4-5 record. But this squad is vastly improved, better than its win total might suggest and a serious threat to end NU’s current winning streak. I’ll admit, I’ve been a Boilermaker truther for a while now. In fact, I’ve been singing their praises as early as this season’s opening week, when Purdue hung with then-No. 16 Louisville before losing by a score.

Since then, the Boilermakers have seesawed throughout the season. They roughed up a good MAC team, Ohio. They crushed a subpar SEC team, Missouri. They faltered at home against Michigan and lost to a Rutgers team that’s probably a little better than you think. They also coasted by Minnesota and Illinois. In the aggregate, they look like a mediocre Big Ten team. That impression represents a giant step forward from last year. It also undersells Purdue.

The Boilermakers play mighty solid defense. They’re sandwiched between Michigan State and Iowa for fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense. And they play close games. A single point separated them from Nebraska. Eight separated them from then-No. 7 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. A few plays here and there, and the Boilermakers could realistically sit at 8-1. There’s a reason why some analytics love Purdue; they are a dangerous, underrated crew.

The sudden shift in West Lafayette is the immediate byproduct of Jeff Brohm’s arrival. The Boilermakers’ first-year coach turned Western Kentucky into a Sun Belt bully before he relocated to the Hoosier state. This week, coach Pat Fitzgerald praised Purdue’s decision to bring him in.

“I said it in the offseason privately, but I said that was a great hire by Purdue,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re going to be very, very good for a long time under Jeff’s leadership. … They’re playing outstanding football and those guys are highly motivated and playing very physical.”

It’s night and day from what folks have come to expect from the Boilermakers. The Cats could learn that quickly under the lights Saturday if they’re not careful. Even with part-time quarterback David Blough out for the season, the visitors are more than capable of putting a quick stopper on all the fun NU has had lately.

Fans shouldn’t arrive at Ryan Field expecting a rout. The Cats shouldn’t either. Because if they come out complacent, they can expect to wind up on the short end of the battle. And as Jackson said last November, losing is not fun.

Email: timothybalk2018@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @timbalk

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