By CLIFF BRUNT
A game most experts chalked up as a loss for Purdue coming into the season could turn out well.
The Boilermakers host Northern Illinois on Saturday. Yes, the Huskies are coming off a trip to the Orange Bowl, have won their first three games and are receiving votes for the Top 25. And yes, Purdue just got pounded 41-10 by Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers can win this one, but it won’t be easy.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch is one of the nation’s best. In three games, he has passed for 662 yards and rushed for 404. Running back Camer Stingily has 238 yards rushing, Tommy Lee Lewis has caught 23 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns and Da’Ron Brown has caught 19 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
Northern Illinois’ 516 yards per game ranks 17th nationally out of 123 schools. The Huskies rank 11th in the country with 295.3 yards rushing per game.
That’s a lot to digest, but Purdue coach Darrell Hazell is familiar with Lynch. Hazell’s Kent State squad lost to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game last year. The knowledge gained in that game should help a Purdue defense that probably is better than it looked against Wisconsin. And Northern Illinois’ offensive line, while big for a MAC school, isn’t gargantuan like Wisconsin’s.
The main reason Northern Illinois is beatable is that its defense is as bad as its offense is good. The Huskies are surrendering 493 yards per game, 115th in the nation. They have given up at least 27 points in all three games, and those opponents, Eastern Illinois, Idaho and Iowa, aren’t great teams. Purdue should be able to score.
Northern Illinois’ defense is exactly what Purdue’s shaky offense needs. The Boilermakers rank in the 100s in rushing offense, passing offense, total offense and scoring offense and rank 121st out of 123 schools in total offense.
Purdue’s most explosive player, Akeem Hunt, has just 156 yards rushing on 50 carries and has no rushing touchdowns, primarily because of poor blocking. Hunt, also the team’s top pass catcher, has proven to be dangerous if allowed to get into open space. I believe that space will be there on Saturday.
The Boilermakers are getting very little from their wide receivers. The No. 2 pass catcher, Justin Sinz, is a tight end. No. 3 is Gabe Holmes, a tight end who is out with an injury, and No. 4 is wide receiver Shane Mikesky, who has eight catches. Wide receiver B.J. Knauf, perhaps the team’s second-most explosive player, is fifth, though he also has nine carries for 49 yards. The Boilermakers will need to get the ball to wideouts, if nothing else, to force defenses to account for them.
Purdue quarterback Rob Henry has had ups and downs this season, but this should be an up. He had a very good game against Notre Dame but struggled against Wisconsin. Though his protection was poor against the Badgers, he has proven that he can succeed when given time. It will be a challenge to give him time — Northern Illinois has 14 sacks this season.
The Boilermakers still need to turn Henry loose as a runner to provide another option for defenses to worry about. He turned a broken play into a 22-yard touchdown run against Wisconsin. If plays like that were a regular part of the game plan, the Boilermakers would be better off. I think you’ll see more of that this week.
If Henry can’t get it going this week, especially against such a poor defensive team, it might be time for Hazell to consider a change. If he won’t adjust the offense to use Henry’s best skill — his running ability — perhaps he should make the move. It’s late enough in the season to consider a switch, though I’d rather see the offense adjusted than Henry replaced. Keep in mind, Purdue has a bye week coming up. Bye weeks are a perfect time to replace your starting quarterback, so the pressure is on Henry this week. The offense showed potential against Notre Dame, and that Purdue unit is the one I expect to see against Northern Illinois.
There’s tough sledding after this game. After the bye, Purdue hosts Nebraska, one of the nation’s best offensive teams. The Boilermakers follow that with a game at Michigan State, which leads the nation with just 188.8 yards allowed per game. The next week, there’s a visit from Ohio State, a national title contender. That stretch makes it imperative that the Boilermakers get this win. I think the Purdue coaching staff understands the urgency of the situation and will loosen the reins on the offense. They don’t want to drop to 1-4.
I’m going to offer a prediction for the first time and say Purdue wins this game 31-28. I believe Purdue will be the more physical team and will play with a sense of desperation, and Henry will solidify his hold on the quarterback job.