Football: What to Watch For: Wildcats aim to stifle Purdue’s passing attack in road contest


Daily file photo by Alyce Brown

Junior running back Evan Hull carries the ball against Ohio State. Hull will look to lead the Cats offense against a physical Purdue defense.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

When Purdue and Northwestern last met on the grass of Wrigley Field in November 2021, an ascendent Boilermaker team handled the despondent Wildcats.

A year later, the matchup of rivals seems similarly lopsided. Purdue (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) is in a four-way tie for the lead in the Big Ten West, while NU (1-9, 1-6) is still in search of its first win since August. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Cats to have a 12.4% chance of springing the road upset. 

Will NU bounce back from its 31-3 road loss to Minnesota last weekend? Three storylines may dictate Saturday’s result:

1. Cats secondary prepares for Purdue’s vaunted passing attack

The Big Ten West division features plenty of powerful running backs — Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim are two recent examples who torched the Cats — but the Boilermakers present a much different challenge. Purdue averages more passing yards per game than any Big Ten West team, led by standout senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell.

But in a draining season for the Cats, the secondary has been a bright spot. NU ranks in the top half of the conference in passing yards allowed despite a rash of injuries and shut down the passing attacks of Ohio State and Minnesota in consecutive weeks. The Cats may take inspiration from their approach against the Buckeyes and try to limit Purdue possessions and shorten the game, while playing physical defense on the Boilermakers’ receivers.

2. Ice-cold NU offense weathering injuries, physical Boilermaker defense

Coming off its lowest-scoring performance of the season and injuries to quarterbacks Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski, the Cats’ offense is a significant cause for concern. NU has only scored more than 14 points once since September and will have to keep pace with a Purdue offense that is averaging almost 30 points per game.

Who will be ready to suit up under center for the Cats? If Sullivan and Hilinski aren’t ready to go for Saturday, sophomore Cole Freeman or junior Carl Richardson could receive the starting nod after late-game appearances against Minnesota last week. The tight end room and offensive line are also in flux. NU will also face an imposing matchup against the Purdue defense, which held the Cats to two touchdowns in last season’s 32-14 loss. 

“They’re a really physical defense,” senior offensive lineman Charlie Schmidt said. “Their front seven plays super hard, they have talent on the outside and inside when it comes to pass rushing. We’re going to have to try to match their physicality.”

3. Cats’ players and assistants have opportunity to prove their merits for 2023

During his Monday press conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald addressed concerns about the future of members of his coaching staff amid calls from the fanbase for major changes.

“I’ll look at all those things,” Fitzgerald said. “I go through a macro evaluation of everything. I do that throughout the year … we’ve got to be better across the board, and that starts with me.”

Both coaches have had their moments this year. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who helped the Cats win the Citrus Bowl in his first season with the team in 2020, led his unit to strong performances against Nebraska and Duke, while defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s unit impressed against two highly ranked opponents in Penn State and Ohio State. 

The disappointing moments, however, have been far more prevalent during NU’s current nine-game losing streak. The Cats are averaging the fewest points in the conference on offense and surrendering the most rushing yards defensively. Over the course of the Cats’ final games, both coaches — along with emerging starters on both units — will have the chance to prove why they can be part of the long-term solution.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker