Northwestern is not a very good football team. Or at least it wasn't Saturday. But luckily for the Wildcats, their opponent on the day was Purdue. Northwestern's offense sleepwalked through much of Saturday's game against the Boilermakers, and the defense had many lapses, but in the end, the Wildcats did just enough to stave off an upset and win, 21-14.
Northwestern opened the game with a mechanical touchdown drive, and it appeared as if it would be an easy day for the Wildcats. Clayton Thorson sped the offense down the field, completing two passes and running for a first down. The seven-play, 2-minute, 49-second touchdown drive was capped off by a Warren Long 32-yard touchdown run:
But Purdue would respond immediately. On the Boilermakers' first play from scrimmage, wide receiver Domonique Young beat Nick VanHoose on a stop-and-go route, and quarterback David Blough hit Young in stride down the sideline for a 68-yard touchdown.
Dean Lowry came up with a big 3rd down stop to halt Purdue's rolling offense on their next possession though, and from there, the game devolved into a punting competition. That is, until midway through the second quarter, when a Blough pass slipped through the hands of a receiver and fell right into the arms of Traveon Henry. Northwestern took advantage of its good fortune, as Miles Shuler got Northwestern into the red zone on a reverse, and Warren Long later found the end zone on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Northwestern's defense began to take control of the game late in the second quarter. Even when Justin Jackson fumbled in his own territory, the Wildcats held Purdue, and forced a turnover on downs. Purdue's kicker Paul Griggs had made just 3 of his 8 field goal attempts on the year, and because he's been so poor, the Boilermakers had not attempted a single field goal in Big Ten play. They went for it on 4th-and-7 from the 24 in this situation, and couldn't convert. Northwestern went into halftime with a 14-7 lead.
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Purdue jumped on the Wildcats right out of halftime, though. The Boilermakers waltzed down the field, with a big chunk of yardage coming on a swing pass to running back Markell Jones on 3rd-and-6. On the very next play, Jones knifed into the end zone and tied the score.
Northwestern's offense moved the ball on its first drive of the second half, with Clayton Thorson snapping a 28-minute drought without a completed pass. But on 4th-and-1 from the Purdue 29-yard-line, offensive coordinator Mick McCall went empty back field and called a short pass play, which was broken up.
Purdue then marched right back down the field, but kicking issues resurfaced. This time the Boilermakers gave Griggs a chance, but he missed his 43-yarder wide right. He's now 3 of 9 on the year.
That was Purdue's first of two missed opportunities in the third quarter. The Boilermakers picked off Clayton Thorson in Northwestern territory on the very next drive, but NU's defense held, and Purdue was forced to punt.
On Northwestern's next drive, Zack Oliver trotted out onto the field with the offense. He actually led the Wildcats down the field, but then tossed an interception in Boilermaker territory. And then after another ugly drive...
Northwestern went back to Thorson, and he responded in a big way. After two first downs through the air, he faced a third-and-13. His pocket collapsed, but the redshirt freshman scrambled to his left, made a man miss, and then angled back all the way to the right sideline, where he powered through a tackler to pick up a first down. Later in the drive, on third-and-goal, Justin Jackson slammed into the end zone for just his second touchdown of the season to give Northwestern a 21-14 lead.
The Wildcats then held off Purdue, forcing a punt, and the offense salted away the game.
1. Northwestern's passing offense was non-existent
Northwestern's passing offense is really, really bad. We already knew that coming into Saturday. But the first half performance against Purdue saw the Wildcats sink to new depths. Clayton Thorson was 3-for-8 for 19 yards before the break, and all three completions came in the first five minutes of the game. Thorson went an entire 28 minutes of game time without completing a single pass until he converted a third-down in the third quarter.
Thorson also made one big mistake. He rolled to his right on 3rd-and-12, and his pass was tipped and intercepted. With the game in the balance...
2. Zack Oliver replaces Thorson... and then Thorson replaces Oliver
For the second week in a row, Oliver replaced Thorson under center for Northwestern. This week though, the circumstances were different. The change came not due to injury, but due to performance.
But Oliver wasn't any better than Thorson. He was late on throws over the middle on multiple occasions, and one resulted in an interception. And when he didn't have a clean pocket, Oliver looked rattled. He doesn't have the athleticism to make plays outside of the pocket, and when offensive linemen were pushed back into his lap, his accuracy suffered.
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After two drives, Thorson then returned to the game, and played much better. He found Christian Jones for a first down, and then Austin Carr for another one for a huge third-down conversion. He then made the play that perfectly represents why he is the starting quarterback for this team. Thorson did not have a good day, but he evaded pass rushers, sprinted to his left, cut right, and then miraculously picked up a first down on a 16-yard run on third-and-13. A few plays later, Justin Jackson scored, and Thorson had, amazingly, won the game for NU after playing so poorly.
The ineffectiveness of both quarterbacks raises larger questions about the offense. This unit is broken. It's not on any one person — the offensive line is inconsistent, the wide receivers rarely make plays, and the scheme is stale — but Northwestern cannot continue to win games playing offense like this.
3. After struggling early, the defense saved the day
The narrative will be about quarterbacks, and rightly so, but it was the defense that kept Northwestern in this game throughout the third and fourth quarters. After Purdue carved the Wildcats up on the first possession of the second half, the defense held Purdue time and time again as the NU offense faltered.
The improvement came at all three levels of the defense. The defensive line got more pressure, the linebackers made more plays near the line of scrimmage, and the secondary's coverage was tighter.
That bought the Wildcats' offense time to figure things out, and one second-half touchdown was enough to come away with a win.