EVANSTON -- For the second game in as many weeks, the Northwestern Wildcats struggled for the vast majority of the day and did not look like a Top 25 team. However, they, like last week, were able to withstand a mid-game quarterback change, beating the Purdue Boilermakers 21-14 at Ryan Field on Senior Day Saturday.
A pair of Warren Long touchdowns plus a second half Justin Jackson score provided the entirety of the scoring for the Wildcats, who struggled with an anemic passing game all afternoon.
After a shaky two-and-a-half quarters from Clayton Thorson (9-for-19 for 82 yards), including an interception, Pat Fitzgerald benched his redshirt freshman signal-caller in favor of senior Zack Oliver.
However, Oliver badly missed a receiver on a pass that was picked off by Purdue's Brandon Roberts, and after a punt on the following possession, Fitzgerald went back to his redshirt freshman.
"We wanted to let [Clayton] take a breather for a second," Pat Fitzgerald said about his thought process in benching Thorson and then bringing him back in. "When you've got a quarterback and you take him out for a second, he can exhale and figure some stuff out. After the turnover (Oliver's interception, we wanted to go back to doing what we were doing."
Then, in his chance to redeem himself for his weak play the last two weeks, Thorson led a 12-play, 58-yard drive in 5:22 down the field with just under five minutes left in the quarter. Justin Jackson's two-yard touchdown run gave the Wildcats a 21-14 lead. It would prove to be the game-winning score.
The drive was extended by Thorson on a huge 3rd-and-14 scamper that netted 16 years and a much-needed first down. If he doesn't convert that, the Wildcats' drive stalls and they probably have to punt.
"I needed to sit," Thorson said afterwards about what the coaching staff told him when he was replaced by Oliver. "They told me 'Let's see what Zack can do for a couple of drives, then you're gonna go back in.'"
The Wheaton, Ill. native left last week's win over Penn State with a hip injury and was replaced by Oliver, who led the game-winning drive against the Nittany Lions. He was not sharp in the first half after Northwestern scored on a Warren Long 32-yard touchdown run to cap off the Wildcats' game-opening drive. Northwestern was able to withstand his subpar play for the first half as NU held a 14-7 lead at the intermission.
After the Jackson score, the Northwestern defense was able to hold serve and force a Purdue punt with 3:39 left to play. Starting with the ball on their own 49-yard line, the Wildcats were able to run the clock down and force Darrell Hazell to use all three of his team's timeouts.
The combination of Justin Jackson and Warren Long gashed the Boilermaker defense for multiple first downs on the final drive, allowing the NU possession to be the last of the game.
Jackson, who was inconspicuously absent on some of the Wildcats' weaker drives, ended up with 119 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown. Long ran for 52 yards on nine carries, including his scoring runs of one and 32 yards. It was clear from the get-go that offensive coordinator Mick McCall wanted to get Long involved early and often.
Just 16 seconds after Long's first touchdown run on Northwestern's first drive, Purdue quarterback David Blough found wide receiver Domonique Young open down the field for a 68-yard score which tied the game up and quieted the somewhat weak Ryan Field crowd. Young beat cornerback Nick VanHoose on a double move and was open for 5-10 yards.
The Northwestern defense wasn't impressive for much of the game, but was able to, as Fitzgerald said, "put out a lot of fires on the field today." The defensive line was uneven in pressuring Blough and the secondary was pretty porous, leading him to lament all the "one-man breakdowns" his team had.
Neither team did much on offense for the next few drives as punters Hunter Niswander and Joe Schopper were very busy every few minutes. Then, after Traveon Henry picked off Blough, Miles Shuler gained 26 yards on a nifty end-around which led, a few plays later, to Long's second score, a one-yard burst into the end zone.
The score remained 14-7 until the first possession after halftime when Purdue running back Markell Jones ran for a three-yard touchdown following another deep pass from Blough to Young. Jones also gained 29 yards on a nice blitz-avoiding wheel route to set up his score. The game was tied at 14 until Jackson's touchdown over 20 minutes (of game time) later.
Northwestern is now 8-2 overall on the season and 4-2 in Big Ten play and has won three games in a row, all by seven points or less. But, with in-game quarterback changes for the second consecutive game, even with Thorson's strong play in the fourth quarter, there is a sense of uncertainty with what's happening under center for the Wildcats.
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What is certain, though, is that Northwestern's graduating seniors all got to win the last home game of their college careers.
"I'm proud of our 24 great seniors, they've been through a lot," Fitzgerald said after the game. "It'll be a memory they won't soon forget, to get their last win at Ryan Field. I wanted them to enjoy the moment. It's something we'll talk about in 20-25 years."