Foster Farms Bowl preview: Purdue vs. Arizona

Foster Farms Bowl preview: Purdue vs. Arizona

Purdue and first-year coach Jeff Brohm have authored one of the most unlikely stories of the 2017 Big Ten season.

The Boilermakers will be making their first bowl appearance since the 2012 season when they play in the upcoming Foster Farms Bowl against Arizona. And with a win, the program will have its first winning season since 2011.

[ MORE: View the full 2017-18 bowl schedule ]

Few could have envisioned the Boilermakers being here a year ago. But Brohm stepped in and immediately flipped the script in West Lafayette in his first season for a program that had won nine games in the previous four years.

Arizona is making its fifth bowl appearance in the last six seasons under Rich Rodriguez, while the program earned its eighth postseason trip in 10 seasons overall.

Purdue and Arizona have met twice previously, with the Boilermakers winning both encounters, 59-7 on Sept. 20, 2003, at Ross-Ade Stadium and 31-24 on Sept. 17, 2005, in Tucson.

While the Purdue offense has had consistency issues, it could have success vs. an Arizona defense that allows more than 34 points per game, which is 110th nationally. The Wildcats are 117th in total defense as well, allowing 464.2 yards per game.

The Purdue defense has been strong all season. The Boilers are allowing 19.3 points to rank fourth in the Big Ten. Last year, Purdue was last in the Big Ten, allowing 38.3 points. The front seven has been especially good with Gelen Robinson, Lorenzo Neal and Eddy Wilson anchoring the line and Markus Bailey, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Danny Ezechukwu and T.J. McCollum leading one of the Big Ten’s most underrated groups of linebackers. The run defense has been stout, as the Boilermakers allow 133.3 yards per game and have yielded only 10 rushing TDs.

Rodriguez and the Boilers have history. Rich-Rod guided Michigan from 2008 to 2010. Purdue was 2-1 against the Wolverines over those three seasons, winning 48-42 on Nov. 1, 2008, at Ross-Ade and 38-36 on Nov. 7, 2009, at Michigan Stadium.

Picked by the media to finish last in the Pac-12, the Wildcats produced a resurgent season with an explosive offense. Arizona led the Pac-12 in numerous offensive categories and ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing offense (324.4 yards per game), No.6 in scoring offense (41.8 points per game) and No. 12 in total offense (494.5 yards per game). The team totaled 30 offensive plays of at least 40 yards, which is the second-best tally in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Arizona saw its season turn around when Khalil Tate took over at quarterback for what was the highest scoring team in the Pac-12. The Wildcats also got a big boost from running back J.J. Taylor, the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. Taylor led Arizona’s running backs with 828 yards and five touchdowns as he split primary tailback duties with senior Nick Wilson, who was an honorable mention all-conference selection.

The Wildcats also have the Pac-12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in linebacker Colin Schooler. The second-leading freshman tackler in the Pac-12, Schooler collected 88 tackles and led Arizona with 60 solo stops. Schooler registered four sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.

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FOSTER FARMS BOWL
Who: Purdue (6-6) vs. Arizona (7-5)
When: Dec. 27, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA

Player on the spot: Purdue QB Elijah Sindelar. The strong-arm sophomore started the final three games after David Blough suffered a season-ending injury. And Sindelar starred down the stretch in leading the Boilermakers from the brink to bowl eligibility in wins at Iowa and vs. Indiana. He will need to hit some big passes to open room in the Arizona defense for an underrated rushing attack. WR Anthony Mahoungou has emerged as a deadly target in November.

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Best individual matchup: Purdue Ja’Whaun Bentley vs. Arizona QB Khalil Tate. Bentley leads a resurgent Boilermaker defense that has excelled at stopping the run. Credit DC Nick Holt, who maximized the talent on this unit. Bentley and Co., need to make slowing down Tate a priority. He emerged as one of college football’s most electrifying players in October, leading the Wildcats to a 5-3 record over the last eight games. Tate paces the team with 12 rushing touchdowns and ranks sixth among all FBS players averaging 135.3 rushing yards. His 1,353 yards rushing rank No. 15 nationally. And Tate became the first quarterback in Pac-12 history to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark for a season. He has passed for 1,289 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, giving him 21 total touchdowns – all of which have come over the last eight games.

Best unit matchup: Purdue defense vs. Arizona offense. The Boilermakers have an aggressive defense that will blitz. Generating turnovers has been key, as Purdue is No. 4 in the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus three). The Wildcats rank No. 6 in the nation in scoring, averaging 42 points. Credit Tate. Since taking over as the starter, he’s had 2,515 yards of total offense with 21 touchdowns in eight games. Twelve of those touchdowns have come on the ground. He leads the nation with five runs of 70 yards or more and is second in the nation with 11 runs of 40 or more yards.

Number: 7.7, which is the average number of points Purdue lost its six games by this season, including one by one point and one by two points. Four losses came to ranked teams.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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