In their quest to reach December’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers will travel down to West Lafayette to face the Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday.
Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2) is riding high off of its four-game winning streak, while Purdue (3-7, 1-6) is slumping without a permanent head coach into its final two games of the regular season.
Despite the apparent one-sided game many predict, the Boilermakers do have a potent offense through their passing game that’s among the top 20 in the nation.
Defensively, however, they’re among the worst in both the conference and FBS in total defense and scoring defense, allowing 466.9 yards per game (113th in the nation) and 38.4 points per game (119th), respectively.
The keys to Saturday’s contest:
Contain Purdue’s passing game
For all that is wrong with the Boilermakers at the moment, their one bright spot comes in the passing game. They lead the Big Ten in that category, averaging 309.2 yards per game. That’s also good for 18th in the FBS.
Sophomore quarterback David Blough is second in the conference in touchdown passes (21) and averages over 292 yards per game through the air himself.
“Good at extending plays with his feet,” safety D’Cota Dixon said of Blough. “He has a very strong arm as well—I’ve seen him avoid a couple of pass rushers, just stop and throw it for 60 [yards]. You got to play true technique and play smart football with these guys.”
Four players have over 30 receptions this season for the Boilermakers, with two more with 29 heading into Saturday’s contest. Senior wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey leads the team in receptions (37), passing yards (718) and touchdowns (seven), averaging nearly 20 yards per catch.
Yancey appears to be the home run hitter in that aspect, while those other five players have marginal averages between 6.4 to 12.5 yards per catch.
If Wisconsin continues the precedent set of containing run games, which it should with Purdue’s attack being one of the worst in the nation, outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel’s can pin their ears back and rush the passer. As long as they watch the draw, which inside linebacker Ryan Connelly noted post-game last week was a problem against Illinois, the Badgers should be able to get some pressure on Blough. It should also help that Purdue’s backs aren’t Kendrick Foster or Reggie Corbin.
Turnovers could be come aplenty against the Boilermakers, as Blough has already thrown 16 interceptions and completed just over 58 percent of his passes. Wisconsin has recorded 14 picks on the year, including Dixon’s four and three apiece by junior cornerback Derrick Tindal and senior safety Leo Musso.
“We’re all about ball—see ball, get ball,” Dixon said when asked if the strategy of the game changes against a pass-happy Purdue offense. “So it’s not going to change—it’s just an opportunity for us. We love it when games like that fall on our shoulders so when we’re not looking at it that way as a threat or anything like that. There’s just plenty of opportunities we’ll have.”
Run the dang ball
Purdue has allowed almost 250 yards per game this season and over 30 points in seven of its 10 games. That includes 29 rushing touchdowns.
The Boilermakers are facing a Wisconsin team that has started to find its footing in that category, with over 200 yards in three of its last five games. That included 363 yards coming on the ground last Saturday against Illinois. Eighteen of the Badgers’ 23 first downs against the Illini were gained “in the trenches.”
Hammer and Rails’ Travis Miller noted the Boilermakers run a 4-2-5 scheme, which was supposed to help against spread teams in the conference but provide a feast for Wisconsin’s pro-style rushing attack. Injuries have also hampered Purdue’s defense this year.
Expect Purdue to sell out against the run, but Wisconsin should move the chains and get into the end zone. With a trio of dynamic backs in seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale plus redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, this could be an impressive performance by the run game.
Battle the elements
This will be the first real “cold weather” game this season for Wisconsin, which is highly odd because we’re in mid-November. A cold front coming through Wisconsin later Friday will affect Indiana later on, with temperatures dipping in West Lafayette down to the high-30s to low-40s for game time.
Winds could be gusting 25 to 35 miles per hour, which will probably be the biggest factor more than anything for the 11 a.m. kickoff. That would leave special teams, particularly the punt and kickoff coverage units, as those most affected in this aspect of the game.
Rain may come into the area Friday evening, so the field may be slick for players to recoup.
“During the week, it’s not really something you’re thinking about,” longsnapper Connor Udelhoven said on Wednesday. “I really just judge what the weather’s going to be like—the temperature, if it’s raining, snowing—once I walk out on Saturday. For me, it’s not something to really be thinking about during the week—you just figure it out on the field.”
Wisconsin should capitalize on its red-zone opportunities to get across the goal line, but keep an eye out for field-goal opportunities if they present themselves.
Bold prediction: I said it on our Walk-On Wisconsin podcast, but you want bold, here you go: three Wisconsin players will go over 120 rushing yards each.
Score prediction: The maturity of this team will be huge in the final two weeks. Lots of buzz, and now with No. 5 Louisville losing to Houston on Thursday, Wisconsin could bump up further in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Expect Purdue to sell out against the run, which could actually help the Wisconsin passing game get back on track after not reaching 200 yards passing since the Iowa game on Oct. 22. Wisconsin’s running game has gained more steam of late and against the worst rush defense in the conference there will be plenty of opportunities to continue that momentum forward.
The defense will have to match up with Purdue’s passing attack, but Jim Leonhard’s secondary should be up to the task now with four very capable cornerbacks and the combination of Dixon and Musso at safety.
The Boilermakers’ offensive line has allowed 21 sacks this season. With not much of a rushing attack to account for on the other side, the Badgers will make their opponents one-dimensional, and it’ll be intriguing to see how they get to Blough.
The march to Wisconsin’s second Big Ten West division title continues on Saturday.
Wisconsin 42, Purdue 10