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Five takeaways from NU’s gritty win at Purdue

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It wasn’t good enough for College GameDay, but it’s good enough for first in the West.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After winning its second come-from-behind victory in a row against Nebraska, the Wildcats gained control of the game from the get-go and never let the Boilermakers take a lead. The Wildcats never looked back. Here are five takeaways from Northwestern’s road victory over Purdue.

This defense is awesome

Northwestern finally allowed points in the second half, but Mike Hankwitz’s unit yet again frustrated its opponent. Twice, the ‘Cats held Purdue to field goals in the red zone. The Boilermakers only first-half touchdown came on a fourth-and-1 from Northwestern’s 40- yard line when coach Jeff Brohm dialed up a play action pass that fooled the entire defense. That was really the only time the defense got flat out beat. Purdue’s only other end zone trip was midway through the fourth quarter when Aidan O’Connell threw a perfect ball to Milton Wright.

The unit missed some tackles, and there were periods when the pass rush went stagnant. Generally speaking, though, all three levels of the defense were great against a potent offense, forcing another turnover that led to points.

“We’re getting production from all three levels, and when you’ve got that, you’ve got the makings of a group that can be really special,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The development of the defensive line and secondary is impressive

Everyone thought the Wildcat linebacking corps would be a strength entering the season. With starters Travis Whillock and Samdup Miller opting out, the secondary and defensive line had question marks.

Greg Newsome II proved he’s one of the top corners in the Big Ten. He limited All-American David Bell to 78 yards on nine catches despite being targeted a whopping 17 times, and had something to say about it. Bell came into the contest averaging 122 yards and two scores per game.

The depth of the secondary has stood out as well. The Wildcats weren’t afraid to play nickel, and AJ Hampton made several nice plays while Cam Ruiz played tight coverage in the red zone to keep Purdue out of the end zone in the third quarter. It says something that Purdue’s second-leading receiver, Milton Wright, caught only three balls for 24 yards and a score, while Horvath led the way with 100 receiving yards.

The D-line finally generated pressure, and Eku Leota and Tommy Adebawore had standout performances. The defense sacked O’Connell three times and made him uncomfortable all night. Adebawore had a tremendous track down tackle of Zander Horvath in open space. And defensive tackles Jake Saunders and Joe Spivak led a unit that allowed two rushing yards. Not much more to be said there.

The offense can still improve

Against Iowa and Nebraska, Northwestern relied on its running game, even when it wasn’t efficient. That was expected to be the plan against a weak Purdue front in the rain. That never panned out, though, and Peyton Ramsey kept the chains moving through the air. Ramsey finished with 23-for-36 for 212 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. It was his best performance so far as a Wildcat when he needed to come up big.

The rushing attack was uninspiring, especially against a defensive line that allowed 186 yards per game in its first two matchups. Credit Purdue’s stud defensive lineman Lorenzo Neal, but for an offense that succeeded carrying the ball through the season’s first three weeks, it was a bit concerning to see 40 rushes for 80 yards. Maybe fewer runs to the right that go for losses?

The receiving trio has a revolving top option

Just as it appeared Kyric McGowan had become Ramsey’s favorite target, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman lit up Purdue for eight catches, 86 yards and three touchdowns. The senior receiver had just one score coming into this season but has been a reliable option for his signal caller.

It does not appear that a true number one receiver (a la Austin Carr) will emerge for the ‘Cats this season, but NU might not need one. Contrary to what many believed heading into the season, Northwestern has a competent and talented group of wide receivers that steps up when called upon. Riley Lees channeled his inner Flynn Nagel with a key third down reception on the opening drive of the game, while McGowan showed his versatility in the backfield. Despite quieter games, Malik Washington and Bryce Kirtz show enough every week to instill confidence in them for the future.

Northwestern has yet to put it all together (let’s subtract Maryland)

At Iowa, Northwestern’s early mistakes that prevented it from taking over the game until the second half. Against Nebraska, the Wildcats had multiple opportunities to step on the Huskers’ throats early on but never capitalized. NU played its best game (notwithstanding Maryland) Saturday, never trailing, but the margin of victory could have been larger. The stagnant rushing attack was enough to beat a one-dimensional team like Purdue, but it won’t fly against Wisconsin.

Next week would be the perfect time for Fitz and co. to put it all together. If the ‘Cats can click on all three phases against Wisconsin, they will be competitive against an impressive Badger squad that showed against Michigan it didn’t miss a beat.

Bonus Takeaway: Charlie Kuhbander is nails

He’s now 5-of-6 on the year, with four makes coming from 40+ yards. It’s important that Kuhbander stays hot so his confidence carries over when the Wildcats need more vital kicks.