Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is off to a solid start with No. 23 Northwestern.
He's won his first three games with the Wildcats and helped put them back in the Top 25 and atop the Big Ten West. On Saturday, the graduate transfer from Indiana will find himself in a familiar spot — chasing another big win at Purdue.
“We have seen him a lot and he’s one of those guys that has a lot of experience, a lot of savvy," Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm said. “He can make plays with his feet. He can run to get yards. He can run the zone read, pull it and get around the edge, and he can also scramble and make plays. So he’s got a very good mix of ability to throw the football, but yet athleticism to make plays with his feet."
Before arriving on campus for his fifth and final college season, Ramsey played at Indiana and split his previous two decisions against the Boilermakers, including an overtime win in the rivalry game last November that finally gave the Hoosiers the Old Oaken Bucket.
This time, he's not playing for a trophy but the West Division lead and a crucial head-to-head victory with the two unbeaten teams trying to gain an early tie-breaker. No. 13 Wisconsin, the trendy pick to win the West, canceled its previous two games, with another potentially making the Badgers ineligible for the division crown.
“It's going to be a huge challenge this week, even more difficult going on the road against a team that's 2-0," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, noting how last week's cancellation could help the Boilermakers. “They'll be well-rested and I'm sure they're going to get some of their guys back who have been banged up and we've been in multiple very challenging, very physical games."
So far, the Wildcats (3-0) have relied on their traditional recipe for success — stingy defense, strong ground game, few miscues.
But against Purdue's wide open, up-tempo offense, they may need Ramsey to do more than simply manage the game. Ramsey demonstrated last season he's more than capable of spreading the field and matching Purdue point for point, and now he may have to do it again.
Brohm promises to have the Boilermakers ready, starting with Ramsey.
“He’s played a lot of football, he’s a coach’s son and he’s definitely really helped that offense function at a higher level," Brohm said. “You've got to find ways to cover receivers. You've got to find ways to get a pass rush. You've got to find ways to able to hit the quarterback and get in his vision. You've got find ways to make him throw in third-and-long instead of third-and-medium, third-and-and short. There are a lot of things we have to do execution-wise, but, yes, we have to account for him."
When Northwestern plays its best under coach Fitzgerald, it's usually because of a suffocating defense. This year is no exception. The Wildcats have a league-high eight interceptions, have held opponents to the second-fewest points (12 per game) and second fewest passing yards (192.3), and pitched second-half shutouts in all three wins.
“We’re playing some damn good ball right now," linebacker Blake Gallagaher said. “We’ve just got to keep doing it."
BELL & MOORE
Brohm hasn't said whether All-American receiver Rondale Moore will play this week but with or without him, Fitzgerald knows his defense will face a monumental challenge covering Purdue's receivers.
In Moore's college debut two years ago, he broke the 46-year-old school record for all-purpose yards with 313. Northwestern lost the battle but won the game.
Last year, the results were reversed. With the injured Moore out, David Bell caught 14 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown in Purdue's win.
“They don't just give out the term All-American out by accident and I think we played a part in that," Fitzgerald said. “He (Moore) is a great player and the plays David made last year, in my opinion, he's the best receiver in the country, and he’s backed it up week after week, rep after rep. If they’re both playing, it will be one of the stiffest challenges we’ve had in a long, long time."
Bell is the first Purdue player to string together five consecutive 100-yard games and over that span, he's caught 57 passes for 602 yards and six TDs.
Zander Horvath also is carving out his own niche. The 230-pound running back has become the first Boilermaker since Kory Sheets in 2007 to post three successive 100-yard games. He's also the first Purdue player to achieve the feat against three Big Ten teams since Edwin Watson in 1997.