EVANSTON, Ill. - It felt nice to watch a “boring” game for the first time in a month.
After three straight overtime wins in dramatic fashion, Northwestern allowed fans to breathe easy for the first time in a month with a dominant performance. The drama-free 23-13 win in regulation was almost a surprise—as seen in the pre-game punditry, odds, and fan comments, most anticipated another close game that would come down to the wire.
Instead, Northwestern provided a clinical performance despite chilly weather and a sparse crowd.
“To be done in regulation, it's only 10 o'clock!” Pat Fitzgerald said. “It's better than being 11 o'clock, right?"
However, the sigh of relief that came from spectators realizing they wouldn’t have to stand in the freezing Evanston cold for an extra hour didn’t come until late in the second quarter.
NU looked fairly sharp on both ends, but its offense was atypical for this often rush-heavy team. The Wildcats were unable to put together more than one successful drive until the last minute of the half.
A scoreless first quarter and tight second quickly faded to a take-over by a confident Northwestern team, despite the Wildcats’ inability to move the ball on the ground.
Fitz said Purdue did exactly what they expected, which was to “Load the box and do everything they could to stop Justin.”
The Boilermakers certainly executed that part of their gameplan. Purdue’s rock-solid run defense did a better job of containing Jackson than even Michigan State, allowing just 5 more yards on 8 more attempts for a total of 46 rushing yards in 25 carries. His season low of 1.8 yards per rush meant Clayton Thorson and Northwestern’s receivers would have to find another way.
They most certainly did...eventually. The eventual five Northwestern scores came largely from drives consisting of Thorson connecting with receivers Bennett Skowronek, Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson, all of who had over 50 yards, led by Skowronek’s 117 yards, 7 receptions and a touchdown. Thorson ended with 296 yards, a touchdown and no picks on 46 attempts. The Wildcats could’ve executed better in the red zone, but after flawless performances in all of the overtime wins, a small dip in efficiency can be excused. After his critics were up in arms during the Nebraska game, it was the perfect response from Thorson.
The offense was consistently solid, but Northwestern’s defense ensured that they didn’t have to be perfect.
Northwestern’s defense continued its season-long trend, bailing out the offense with a first half shutout, allowing Thorson and the receivers the time they needed to adjust and find their rhythm.
The Wildcats’ defense held Purdue’s offense to just 33 total yards in the first quarter and prevented all four third down conversion attempts and the key fourth down attempt at the end of the half. The Boilermakers only had one first down in the quarter, as Northwestern’s defense disrupted all attempts of cohesive drives. Northwestern also benefitted from a missed field goal from Purdue kicker Spencer Evans.
Although Purdue got moving a little bit more the second quarter, totaling 116 yards in the second quarter, NU’s defense remained steady, particularly on the rush.
The Boilermakers managed only four yards in four attempts on the ground and converted only one of five third downs.
The biggest stop of the game came with just under two minutes left in the half with the Wildcats up 7-0. Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar led a just under three minute drive that brought the Boilermakers down to the Northwestern 4-yard line and brought up fourth and one.
“In a game like this, momentum is huge,” defensive lineman Trent Goens said of the stop. “Being able to get off the field, especially on the goal line, was huge, to take points off the board."
The tackle - by Nate Hall and Blake Gallagher - would prevent Purdue from tying the game and give the Wildcats the ball to start the drive which would double their score and give Northwestern a double-digit lead heading into halftime.
As Fitz said, “This is Big Ten football ...it’s hard to gain inches,” something which has proven particularly true against this Northwestern defense.
Yes, Purdue scored in both quarters of the second half. But the 13 points allowed doesn’t quite do justice to Northwestern’s defensive success. The Boilermakers may have been without their starting quarterback, but were still able to execute at a high level.
Sindelar silenced his doubters on Saturday night as well. He was very effective in the second half and proved he will be in the mix for a starting spot next year. His only mistake was his last throw of the game, a pick thrown to Marcus McShepard. However, Purdue’s inability to stay in this game was largely due to the aggressive and relentless attacks of the Northwestern defense on key downs as opposed to a weakness in Purdue’s offense.
Purdue went 7-of-19 on 3rd down conversions and 1-for-4 on fourth, Purdue’s offense was never able to find their rhythm and was controlled - as most of Northwestern’s opponents this season have been - by an unyielding front seven and active secondaries.
Going forward, Northwestern will face a Minnesota offense with a strong rushing game, as Fitz said, “We’re going to have our hands full with their rushing attack.” But with seven wins under their belt, and one of their most consistent all-around wins of the season, the Wildcats are looking confident and prepared. If Northwestern is able to maintain this success in their final two regular season games, it should be looking at a solid bowl game appearance.
It wasn’t the heart-stopping action Northwestern fans have gotten to experience each of the past three weeks, but maybe an unexciting, defense-heavy win was exactly what this team needed.