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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s ugly loss to Purdue

Nothing but heartbreak. On to UMass!

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This just isn’t Northwestern’s year.

It’s really that simple.

After a blowout loss to Indiana, the ‘Cats returned home to take on an injury-ridden Purdue squad. Despite two quick touchdowns to start the game, Northwestern let the lead slip away. What followed was heartbreak. Here are five key things to take away from the Wildcats’ devastating two-point defeat:

Aidan O’Connell has some guts

Much like last week’s takeaways, I wanted to visit with the opposing team before getting into the ‘Cats ugliness. O’Connell completed 34 of his 50 passes Saturday for 271 yards and two touchdowns. While he may have thrown two interceptions, O’Connell orchestrated the 11 play, 58-yard drive that was capped off by a 39-yard game winning field goal to seal things for the Boilermakers.

He also happened to do the same thing last week against Nebraska, taking the Boilermakers on a 12 play, 82-yard drive which ended in a game winning touchdown. Quite impressive for a third-string QB who’s been without his best target in Rondale Moore.

Aidan Smith is growing, but still has ways to go

Let’s bounce over to the other Aidan. While O’Connell won the game, Aidan Smith did show some signs of growth. In the first quarter alone, Smith completed five passes of 10 yards or more. He also dropped a dime for Jace James on the second drive of the game for a 16-yard touchdown.

Aside from that, though, Smith struggled. On his one interception, he stared down his target the entire way before Cam Allen picked him off. Smith finished with a 48.5 QBR for the game, despite completing 19 of his 31 attempts. It’s nothing new for the ‘Cats, who have been plagued with QB struggles all year.

Northwestern’s kicking woes are unacceptable

First Nebraska, now Purdue. One from 34 yards and one from 32. Both misses on either potential game-winners or game-sealers. It doesn’t get more Northwestern than that.

Flashback to Nebraska, the ‘Cats were tied 10-10 late in the fourth when their drive stalled, leading to Kuhbander setting up for a makeable 34-yard attempt. In short, he shanked it. The’Cats did get the ball back, but it was taken right back by the Huskers on a controversial non-call on pass interference. Nebraska then did some marching of their own and kicked a chip shot 24-yarder of their own to win it as time expired.

Now back to Purdue. Following Mick McCall’s terrible two-point conversion attempt (seriously, what was that), the ‘Cats led 22-21 late in the fourth. They then marched into the redzone, only to stall and set up for a field goal attempt, which was then doinked off the left upright by Kuhbander. The missed kick was brutal and was one of the many factors that led to Northwestern handing this game to the Boilermakers.

Mick McCall helped his case in some ways, but hurt it in others

It’s no secret that fans want McCall gone. That sentiment has been echoed time and time again throughout NU Football’s Twitter mentions. That being said, McCall certainly helped his case today. Here’s why:

Following 44 drives without a touchdown, the ‘Cats scored two touchdowns in the first quarter alone, including a 77-yard touchdown run by Kyric McGowan. The running game was extremely efficient overall, going for 251 yards on 45 carries (averaged 5.6 YPC). In the end, the ‘Cats gained 400+ yards of total offense today, much higher than their season average of 258.5 YPG.

On the other hand, they scored exactly six points in the final three quarters against one of the worst, most banged-up defenses they have faced all season long. Even with Smith and McGowan moving the ball successfully all day, once they got across the 50 the Wildcats often got away from what had been working, keeping them out of scoring range. Oh, and when you take away the long McGowan touchdown, that yards per carry average drops below 4.0. That’s all to say nothing about the play call on that crucial two point conversion.

Northwestern had some moments yesterday offensively, but against a struggling defense, the ‘Cats, and especially their braintrust, showed why they still have a long way to go in that regard.

2-10 is the mark to beat

I’m not sure if you noticed, but Minnesota just knocked off No. 4 Penn State and Illinois stormed back from down 28-3 to shock Michigan State in East Lansing. The Golden Gophers can officially be considered playoff contenders and the Illini are now bowl eligible. There is no doubt in my mind that UMass is the only really winnable game left on the schedule.

That’s not to say that UMass will be a complete guarantee. The Minutemen currently sit at 1-9, with their sole win coming against Akron (don’t even THINK about last year). Just yesterday, UMass lost 63-7 to Army, a team that runs the triple option. If next weekend’s game is somehow close, or if the ‘Cats somehow find a way to drop this game, it would be a bitter ending to a truly atrocious season.