Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.
To put it kindly, yesterday was not a good day for grades, as you'll see. Against one of the worst teams in the conference -- and perhaps one of the worst teams in the nation -- Northwestern had to grind out a victory until essentially the last whistle.
While the victory was an absolute must-have, and Northwestern did in fact get it, the poor play all around was somewhat discouraging. Here's how the Wildcats fared in their latest assessment:
9/19, 82 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT; 7 carries, 48 yards
In a season full of performances that have been difficult to grade, this one might be the toughest. The redshirt freshman experienced the lowest of the lows (being benched) and relative highest of the highs (leading the team on the game-winning drive). Save for one drive, though, Thorson was not very good. His interception came on a very ill-advised throw, and he struggled to get the offense moving as he completed under 50 percent of his passes. But when his team needed him, Thorson came through with two enormous third down conversions -- one a pass to Austin Carr, the other an outstanding individual effort on a 16-yard scamper. He was bad overall, but his performance on the game's most important drive was really good.
2/5, 50 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT; 1 carry, -1 yard
Oliver came in and moved the ball really well on his first two throws, collecting 50 yards and moving the Wildcats into field-goal range, but he destroyed all the good work he had done on his next throw, a killer interception that halted any momentum he helped create. The next drive was just plain ugly. He's nowhere near the athlete Thorson is, and behind an up-and-down line, that's problematic. But if his role was really to come in and let Thorson calm down, he performed it in a mediocre manner.
24 carries, 116 yards, 1 TD
Jackson played well when he got the ball, but there were random times when he didn't get the ball -- and that's not his fault, it's just the way Mick McCall calls plays. Jackson was fantastic at grinding away the game yet again, as he has been in many Northwestern victories, and he finally got back into the end zone, providing the game-winning two-yard plunge. The only reason that this grade isn't an A is his uncharacteristic fumble, which put Northwestern's defense behind the eight ball. Luckily for him, his teammates responded.
6 rushes, 52 yards, 2 TDs
A standout performer for the offense, Long provided two of the Wildcats' touchdowns, and his development as a true backup to Jackson and not just a short-yardage guy is an underlying storyline this season. Long has shown improved vision and speed, both of which were on display in his 32-yard touchdown to open the game, but also proved he still has his trademark short-distance power with the one-yard score.
The fact that Solomon Vault -- a running back -- led Northwestern in receiving yards showed just how lackluster he Wildcats' passing attack was. There's no guy to single out and give a grade to. Austin Carr had a nice first down grab to convert a third down, and Mike McHugh hurdled a guy, but there just wasn't much there today. It's hard to make big plays when the quarterbacks are struggling and no wide receiver did anything to separate themselves from each other.
The unit paved the way for 243 rushing yards and only allowed two sacks on the day -- the second of which was Thorson being tackled behind the line of scrimmage as he ran out the clock. Purdue managed to get a decent amount of pressure on Northwestern's quarterbacks, often forcing them to leave the pocket, but in general the guys up front did their job well. One interesting thing to watch is if Ian Park will take back his spot at center next week. Brad North played there this week and had his fair share of ups and downs.
5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 QB hits
Lowry was somewhat quietly his usual self against the Boilermakers. Although it wasn't the standout game he has played at times this year, the senior was good against both the run and the pass, had a huge tackle to stop Purdue on a third-and-short situation and was Northwestern's best defensive lineman, per usual.
Rest of the defensive line
Not a single defensive lineman had a sack this game, and no lineman other than Lowry even recorded a tackle for a loss. David Blough had tons of time to throw for basically all afternoon. What was esspecially concerning was Ifeadi Odenigbo, who failed to register a stat of any kind and was often stonewalled at the line by Purdue's offensive tackles.
14 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF
Another week, another double-digit tackle performance from Northwestern's main man in the middle. Walker was all over the place and held up well in the run today, which he has sometimes struggled with. When the defense needed to step up, it did, and Walker led the way.
4 tackles, 2 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU
This might be Drew Smith's first appearance on a report card this year, but he certainly earned a high mark in this game. Smith played his best game of the season, getting to David Blough twice as he accounted for the Wildcats' only sacks on the afternoon. He also had a huge pass breakup, where he absolutely nailed a Purdue receiver coming across the middle. It was a perfect, clean hit, and Smith showed his vicious hitting ability. This was a big game from the big outside linebacker.
4 tackles, 1 PBU
Harris was outstanding. There were times during this game when it looked like he was running the wide receivers' routes for them. The athletically-gifted corner was a shutdown guy all day, and ceded absolutely nothing over the top. If you go back and watch the film (I won't blame you if you don't -- this wasn't the most exciting game), you'll be impressed by how well the junior played, even if you may not have noticed it during the game.
4 tackles, 1 PBU
It's interesting to see how Harris and VanHoose have the same stat line, yet one played terrifically and the other struggled. After Northwestern went right down the field and scored to open the game, a quick stop from the defense would have made this game much easier than it was. Instead, VanHoose got burnt on a double move, giving up a 68-yard score on Purdue's first play from scrimmage. On a couple other instances, Blough picked on VanHoose, who was matched up on Domonique Young. Young finished with five catches for 107 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. It wasn't the Senior Day sendoff the normally-solid VanHoose would have wanted.
5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU
Henry was in the right place at the right time, catching a bobbled pass from David Blough, as he collected Northwestern's only takeaway of the day. It was a huge turnover, as the WiIdcats scored a touchdown after being given the short field. Still, however, Henry struggles to tackle sometimes, opting to try to lower his shoulder instead of wrapping up. On the play he got hurt, it was this tendency that caused the injury. Instead of squaring up and making the tackle, he tried to lower his body to make a big hit and got trucked over by Purdue running back Markell Jones.
McCall's two best plays were the first two passes he called for Zack Oliver. But on Oliver's second drive, he went with four straight passes and the Wildcat offense picked up just one first down on a questionable defensive pass interference call. Also, facing fourth-and-one in Purdue territory, McCall dialed up an empty backfield set and forced Thorson to throw a long pass near the sideline, a pass that has to be on the money to have a chance of being caught. A Purdue defender was able to break it up. Why not just run there? Purdue proved it couldn't match Northwestern at the point of attack, and even if it had done so for that one play, there's a good chance Jackson or Long could have picked up one yard. McCall has some tendencies that are extremely frustrating; he often forgets about his best skill player (Jackson), make bland play calls and sometimes makes things more complicated then they need to be. Run the ball and get the ball out quickly on shorter, easier throws.
Hankwitz refused to dial up pressure for much of this game, which was frustrating, as Blough had lots of time in the pocket. Of course the one time Hankwitz did bring the house, Blough did a good job of recognizing it and got the ball out quickly for a big gain. In the second half, though, he mixed up the gameplan and got more pressure on Blough with strategically-timed blitzes, even as his linemen struggled to do much. Purdue was able to move the ball somewhat well through three quarters or so, but after that, the defense unit took over.
As the head coach addressed in his postgame press conference, when you try something and it works, it makes you look good. When it doesn't work, it makes you look bad. In this case, Fitzgerald taking out Thorson for two drives -- although it initially looked very bad -- worked out in the end. And you have to credit Fitzgerald for, at the very least, trying something different. He's coaching a team that's now 8-2 and avoided what could have easily been a trap game.