On a critical fourth-and-four in the dwindling moments of Saturday’s contest, Northwestern had the chance to earn its first conference victory.
Instead, the same lack of discipline that plagued the Wildcats all game cost them a morale-boosting victory on parents weekend in Evanston.
Cam Ruiz had the opportunity to make a play on the ball and eliminate Purdue’s chance of extending its final drive, but instead, the defensive back made clear contact with the receiver and gave the referee an easy decision to make. With help from safety JR Pace over the top, the pass probably would’ve fallen incomplete had Ruiz refrained from grabbing on to the Boilermaker receiver.
“I thought our feet got tangled up,” Ruiz said. “But the ref called PI and I knew it was PI once we were on the ground.”
The play ultimately gave Purdue the ball in field goal range, allowing the team to run out the clock and give J.D. Dellinger a shot at elongating Northwestern’s misery. The junior stepped up and drilled the kick, nullifying the best effort from NU in Big Ten play.
“The last four minutes of the game, the difference was discipline,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “Self-inflicted wounds with all the penalties, gave them all the yards they needed to make a kick and win the game.”
It wasn’t just the final pass interference that aided Purdue’s final drive. Northwestern’s secondary committed a holding and two PIs on the drive, giving Purdue 30 free yards (the holding was declined). All Aidan O’Connell and the Boilermakers had to do on their final offensive possession was loft a ball up and the Northwestern secondary would bail them out. It was far too simple.
The 2018 iteration of Northwestern led the nation in penalties conceded last year, only committing an average of three per game. It was a big reason the ‘Cats were able to win close games and compete with superior opponents. They didn’t commit self-inflicted mistakes. This season, NU is committing over six penalties per game.
On Saturday, self-inflicted mistakes defined Northwestern, and it wasn’t just penalties. Speaking on his team’s third quarter struggles, Fitzgerald listed a litany of issues that could’ve been avoided.
“We missed a couple tackles, we get a holding call, we got an unblocked guy that gives up a touchdown, that’s pretty devastating,” Fitzgerald said. “Then we go three-and-out and they put together the same drive.”
Make no mistake. At the end of the day, it was penalties and a number of avoidable moments defined this contest for the team in purple.
Throughout the game, Northwestern racked up nine penalties for 86 yards, and multiple crucial defensive penalties led to Purdue scores. Even in the second quarter, the Boilermakers faced a third down deep in NU territory. With a chance to get the defense off the field, JR Pace committed a pass interference and gave Purdue a fresh set of downs. They scored two plays later.
In the fourth quarter, Charlie Kuhbander had a chance to extend Northwestern’s lead to beyond a field goal, but he couldn’t connect on his 32-yard attempt, inexcusable from a veteran kicker.
In the grand scheme of the season though, these losses boil down to entire team performances rather than a few individual mistakes. It’s certainly not one player, but rather a team problem that starts upfront with coaches failing to put these players, particularly the secondary, in a position to succeed.