The noon, half-full black and gold setting was dreary. The outlook was even worse.
Northwestern was down 10-0 to a Purdue team that hadn’t led by double digits since Halloween 2015. Having allowed an 11-play, 61-yard scoring drive to start the game down 3-0, the Wildcats fell had fallen further behind after a brutal interception from Clayton Thorson that led to a short Boilermaker touchdown.
The Wildcats, as they have all year, responded, but this time it was the defense leading the way. Montre Hartage came away with his third pick of the year, stepping in front of Purdue standout receiver DeAngelo Yancey to put the offense in business. Four plays later, Northwestern found itself on the board, courtesy of a Clayton Thorson pass to a somehow wide open Austin Carr. Two drives later, the Wildcat defense once again stood tall on fourth down, and Northwestern took the lead on the ensuing drive with Carr breaking open deep.
Still, it wasn’t quite the full response we’d seen Thorson pull off throughout the season. With a chance to really take control versus a clearly inferior opponent, Thorson instead threw a second ugly pick. Staring down Austin Carr on a 3rd-and-goal, Thorson was completely oblivious to Purdue’s Markus Bailey sitting on the route. After an ugly, underachieving half, the Wildcats led 14-10, but they were far from in control in West Lafayette.
Coming out of halftime, the message was clear: Dominate.
And the way the Wildcats would do that would be on the ground, where Purdue’s defense is among the worst in the nation. After throwing 26 times and running it just 14 times in the first half, Mick McCall dialed up runs on five of the next seven plays as the offense marched 71 yards down the field for a score. The ground game — a combination of Justin Jackson and John Moten IV — accounted for 66 of those yards.
“I think we liked a lot of our run game in the first half,” Jackson said. “We went back to some base stuff too, and it just came down to executing (in the second half).”
For the first time, Northwestern was in control, up 21-10. The Boilermakers never got any closer. Even after a long Purdue touchdown pass brought the hosts to within 28-17, the WIldcats squashed any hopes of a comeback Gerad Parker’s team may have had in mind, dominating up front during a seven-play, 74-yard drive that culminated in a Thorson touchdown. The sophomore gunslinger walked into the end zone on a keeper from two yards away. Especially after a poor performance against a very good Wisconsin team, it was encouraging to see the offensive line dominate in the second half: Of Northwestern’s 253 rushing yards, 125 came in the third quarter where Northwestern essentially put this one to bed.
“We couldn’t run the ball the length of our nose a week ago,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “We go as our offensive line goes, and that’s what I challenged them with on Thursday. This is Big Ten football. You’ve gotta win the game up front... I thought that group really responded well today.”
But it wasn’t just the offense, which racked up 603 total yards by simply playing dominant, balanced football in the second half. The defense, ravaged by injuries in the secondary, held David Blough, the Big Ten’s leading passer yardage-wise, to 184 yards on 36 attempts. And after giving up nearly 400 yards combined on the ground the last two weeks, the Wildcats held the Boilermakers to 130 yards on 32 attempts, an average of only about 4 yards per carry.
But most importantly, after two weeks of zero forced turnovers, the Wildcats produced four: Montre Hartage twice and Anthony Walker and Trent Goens once each. The Wildcats interchanged a ton of different coverages against the talented but mistake-prone Blough.
Walker pointed to “the defense playing together as one” as the main reason behind the takeaways.
“If everybody’s getting back to their position, opportunities will come. You get tired of Coach Fitz yelling at you at practice about getting turnovers,” Walker said.
No sequence was more representative of the second half as a whole than Purdue’s first drive after halftime when Walker’s interception was immediately followed by a 42-yard strike to a streaking Garrett Dickerson down the seam, Northwestern’s second touchdown in a span of one minute and 21 seconds.
“I think it was really important (to capitalize),” Fitzgerald said. “All year, we had not been great creating turnovers and then scoring touchdowns. Our points off of turnovers was very low, and I think today was one of our highest outputs, so that was a great thing to see.”
As Northwestern progresses through what Austin Carr described as a “three-game playoff” coming into today, it will need to continue to do the basic things right: Run the ball, mix in big pass plays and create turnovers.
In the second half, the Wildcats did just that.
And they were dominant.