Wisconsin rolls on through Big Ten West play with a home game against Purdue on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT. And a victory essentially would provide the Badgers with at least a two-game cushion over every team in the division.
The Badgers enter this week at 5-0 overall, including 2-0 in the Big Ten. Only Nebraska (2-1) and Purdue (1-1) have just one loss among West Division teams, but Wisconsin holds the tiebreaker against Nebraska, thanks to its 38-17 victory in Lincoln last week.
Purdue has exceeded expectations early this season under first-year coach Jeff Brohm and defeated Minnesota 31-17 last Saturday. The Boilermakers haven’t won two consecutive Big Ten games since 2012.
Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Take away Purdue’s passing attack
Brohm has utilized a two-quarterback system with David Blough and Elijah Sindelar that has worked well early this season. Blough has completed 68.9 percent of his passes, with 7 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions. Sindelar has completed 55.6 percent of his passes, with 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Purdue has more passing attempts (181) than rushing attempts (164) so far in 2017 and has six players who have caught at least 10 passes.
“They definitely break that stereotype that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “They’re both very effective in what they do. So you have to treat those guys as very, very capable players. They want to throw the ball, and they have confidence. They don’t baby one of those guys. It’s not like a different offense where they’re a little more cautious or conservative. They let those guys play and throw the ball all over the place.”
Wisconsin’s pass defense is allowing 192.4 yards per game, which ranks 26th in the FBS. This is a game in which the team’s defensive backs could be tested. The Badgers already have picked off 8 passes in 5 games and would love nothing more than to make the Boilermakers pay for airing it out. Purdue is not a team that can afford to rely on its running game. The Boilermakers rank 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (136.2 yards per game). Purdue’s leading rusher, Tario Fuller, has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
2. Get QB Alex Hornibrook back on track
Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook still leads all Big Ten signal callers in pass efficiency rating (167.2). He has not been as effective, however, during his first two conference games and could use a strong showing against Purdue to boost confidence and showcase the team’s versatility. In games against Northwestern and Nebraska, Hornibrook has completed 20 of 37 passes for 310 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He’s averaging 155.0 yards passing per game in league play after averaging 233.7 yards passing in three nonconference games. Statistics are expected to drop when the games become more difficult against familiar division opponents, but Hornibrook has more to offer this offense.
Purdue’s pass defense ranks 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams and is allowing 223.8 yards passing per game. That’s actually a worse figure than last season, when the Boilermakers surrendered 207.4 passing yards per game. Purdue has made its greatest strides with run defense and is allowing 87.5 fewer rushing yards per game. Hornibrook has two major weapons with receiver Quintez Cephus and tight end Troy Fumagalli, as well as solid complementary pieces. He should be able to produce a much better passing game against the Boilermakers.
3. Build an early lead
This might sound like an obvious key to any game, but it’s particularly relevant for the Wisconsin-Purdue game. For starters, the Badgers’ defense has been ridiculously good in the second half. Somehow, they have outscored opposing offenses 18-14. The only game in which Wisconsin’s defense allowed any points came when it surrendered 2 touchdowns against Northwestern. But the Badgers’ defense has scored 18 points off 2 interception returns for a touchdown and 2 safeties. It’s difficult to fathom Purdue mounting a second-half comeback on the road against a Wisconsin defense that has been this stout.
Purdue, meanwhile, has not been a very good second-half team. The Boilermakers have been outscored 63-56 after halftime. Purdue has demonstrated it can play with some of the big boys of college football for a half. Purdue led Louisville 14-10 at halftime in the season opener and lost the second half 25-14. Purdue led Michigan 10-7 at halftime three weeks ago, but the Wolverines outscored the Boilermakers 21-0 in the second half.
This is a much better Purdue team than the one Wisconsin fans have seen the past four seasons. Those iterations of the Boilermakers finished 3-30 in Big Ten play and never had much hope of escaping the conference basement. But there is a renewed optimism under Brohm, and rightfully so. Purdue’s defense has substantially improved, and the offense has cut down on turnovers. If nothing else, the Boilermakers’ early season performance has caught the attention of Badgers players and coaches. Still, Purdue doesn’t have the horses to storm into Camp Randall Stadium and pull off a major upset. Not this year, anyway, and not with a Wisconsin team on a quest for an undefeated regular season. Wisconsin 31, Purdue 14.
Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10
Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14
Game 3 prediction: Wisconsin 27, BYU 10; Game 3 score: Wisconsin 40, BYU 6
Game 4 prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13; Game 4 score: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 24
Game 5 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17; Game 5 score: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17