While it’s normally perennial Big Ten powers such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State who garner attention on the national stage, it’s instead a pair of often-overlooked programs in Northwestern and Purdue that will start the 2018 season in the spotlight.
The Wildcats are coming off a 2017 season in which they rattled off eight straight victories following a 2-3 start. With all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson having departed for the Los Angeles Chargers, Northwestern’s 2018 hopes are tied to QB Clayton Thorson’s recovery from the ACL reconstruction surgery he had in January after suffering an injury in the team’s Music City Bowl win over Kentucky. Thorson has started 39 games and is expected to be an early-round selection in next April’s NFL draft.
The spread for this game sat at 3.5 for nearly three weeks at William Hill before dropping to 3 late in the evening on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Not coincidentally, the Chicago Tribune released a report early the next morning that read, in part, “If you watched Clayton Thorson go through drills, you’d say: He had surgery? Seven and a half months after getting his right knee reconstructed, the quarterback looks sharp. The injury prompted him to re-examine his mechanics, and some now believe he has more zip on the ball. Thorson got heavy reps with the ‘1s’ at practice, and observers expect him to suit up for next Thursday’s season opener at Purdue.”
The Boilermakers’ 7-6 record in 2017 marked their first winning season since they posted the same record in 2011. In Jeff Brohm’s first year as Purdue’s head coach, it represented a four-win improvement from 2016. The key to the turnaround was a defense that went from ranking 117th among FBS teams in scoring in 2016 to 24th in 2017, which was also coordinator Nick Holt’s first year leading the unit. The team lost eight players who saw significant action, however, including both starting cornerbacks.
This is a head-to-head series that had been dominated by the road team in recent seasons prior to last year’s 23-13 victory for Northwestern as a 6.5-point home favorite. The road team had been 4-1 straight up and 5-0 ATS over the five previous meetings despite the fact that the only time the road team was favored was in Northwestern’s 45-17 victory as a 13.5-point favorite in 2016. The Wildcats have gone 4-0 straight up and 3-1 ATS against Purdue since the start of the 2014 season, winning the four games by an average margin of more than 17 points while holding Purdue to 17 points or fewer each time. They’re 6-1 (5-2 ATS) against the Boilermakers since 2008, and they’re 10-1 ATS on the road against Big Ten opponents since the midway point of the 2015 season. Meanwhile, 11 of the 14 road games Northwestern has played against Big Ten opponents since the midway point of the 2014 season have gone OVER the total. Provided that Thorson is healthy enough to start, the Wildcats appear to have an edge over a Purdue squad that lacks experience on defense.
Side Pick: Northwestern +3
Confidence Level: Very High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)