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Inside the drive that put Northwestern ahead for good

Ramsey was flawless, and it gave the Wildcats momentum heading into the half.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Purdue faced a fourth-and-one at the Northwestern 40-yard line with 7:37 left in the first half, it had gained a mere 78 yards. For an offense that averaged 421 total yards in its first two games, that was well under its normal pace.

But Boilermaker head coach Jeff Brohm dialed up a play-action fake that got basically the entire Wildcat defense to bite, leaving tight end Garrett Miller wide open for a touchdown to knot things up at 10.

On the prior drive, NU quarterback Peyton Ramsey sailed a pass for Riley Lees that went off his hands and was intercepted. If the ball was on target, Lees would have likely caught the third-and-11 conversion near midfield. Instead, the Boilermakers took a Northwestern direction, coming up with an impact play and tying the game despite being outclassed for the majority of the half.

“We were pretty pissed off in the boundary, to be honest with you,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had a mental mistake. We had a bust that led to the touchdown. It was more about just settling everyone down. Credit Purdue. The thing that made us probably the most aggravated is that was a concept we practiced and talked about multiple times.”

Knowing he put his defense in a tough spot, Ramsey said he saw the next drive as an opportunity to regain momentum and pump life back into the offense.

Regain Uncle Mo the Wildcats did, as they proceeded on a nine-play, 62-yard touchdown drive over four minutes and 21 seconds to reclaim a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Ramsey specifically was on point, completing all seven of his passing attempts for 68 yards and a score.

“It was a big drive we were able to string together and put points on the board,” said the signal caller. “We just had to shake it off, had to flush it and try to go get some points.”

What made the drive impressive was how NU responded to negative plays. They could have killed the drive, but instead offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian had faith in his unit to execute and the players delivered. Let’s take a look at what worked so well on the drive.

A tip of the cap to Mike Bajakian on this drive, as he showed a couple different looks on the ground but wasn’t afraid to have Ramsey sling it. The drive starts with a quick fake to Drake Anderson that draws the defense to the right just enough so that tight end John Raine comes streaking across the formation and creates a high-percentage completion for Ramsey as well first down yardage after the catch.

Drake Anderson then tried a stretch run to the right, but Purdue defensive end DaMarcus Mitchell was unblocked and tracked him down for an eight-yard loss that nearly became a turnover. The Wildcats ran similar-looking plays several times, especially with the struggles they had running between the tackles. Anderson had three rushes of negative yards. Though it failed on multiple attempts, we know Bajakian is okay to give up some plays if it means fooling the defense later on.

Ramsey made a couple of nice throws on this drive, but this is arguably both the most impressive and most important. After the setback, this is not an easy throw to make, with RCB placed right at the boundary and the ball just eluding the outstretched hand of Mitchell, the defensive end who was playing zone coverage. It’s a perfect touch from Ramsey, once again slicing up a zone. If this pass falls incomplete, the ‘Cats face third-and-18 and are getting ready to punt the ball back to the Boilers fairly quickly after surrendering the touchdown.

That connection set up Ramsey at his best: extending the play and then patiently converting a third down. As the routes break down, he scrambles to his right and then waits till the last possible moment to zip one into RCB, who holds on for the sliding grab with cornerback Cory Trice draped all over him. We’ve seen similar plays several times this year, and as efficient as Ramsey has been with them, credit has got to be given to the receivers, who seem to hold on to just about every diving catch. That was not the case last year.

Of the running plays that did work, Kyric McGowan was usually involved in them. He carried on outside runs, whether it was on jet sweeps or simple handoffs. But getting him in space is generally a good idea, and his patience earned him a first down.

Once the Wildcats crossed the Purdue 30, the short passes took over. On this play, from my vantage point in the press box, it looked like Ramsey had a man open deep across the middle (I confess I forget who), and it seems like he really wanted to get it downfield until he decided not to force it. Might there have been a bigger play? Maybe, but you’ll take a four-yard check down to keep the trains running on time, and the fact that he didn’t try to make a play that he wasn’t sure was there is perfectly fine.

This dump pass to the apparently-bulldozing Mangieri serves as an alternate to a rush when the ground game just wasn’t there. It could have picked up three-to-four yards, and it would have set up third-and-manageable, but wide receiver Malik Washington, even without throwing the best block, creates enough of a disruption to allow Mangieri to power his way for a first down.

Another easy completion for Ramsey. He was looking downfield the entire time, so if he wasn’t truly considering a deep option, it’s a smart play to let Bowser settle into a soft spot and draw the defenders far enough away from him. When he catches it, he’s got a few clear yards ahead of him to set up second-and-one, which opens up the playbook for everything.

I love the call from Bajakian here, even if the penalty nullifies it. McGowan takes it on a jet sweep, and you could argue he’d make it to the end zone even without the Mangieri hold (it was a fairly obvious call). With Kyric’s speed and that angle, it’s tough for many defenders to catch him. But alas, one more negative play on this drive after they had punched it in.

As a Giants fan, I couldn’t help but think of Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress for the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII. The protection is great, so Ramsey has a clean pocket, and once he sees RCB lose his defender and create separation at about the 15-yard line, he lets it go, and the ball is perfectly placed and on time for six points. Everyone else but John Raine, who is double covered, runs a shorter route, and Ramsey was looking RCB’s way the whole time.

Ramsey made several types of throws on this drive, from short, easy completions to tricky sideline toe-taps. Mike Bajakian kept Purdue on its heels and mixed up his play calling well, giving his veteran quarterback all the tools at his disposal to march down the field and inject needed energy into the team.