After a disappointing showing in Minneapolis a week ago, Northwestern traveled to West Lafayette, Ind. this weekend for a showdown with Purdue. The Boilermakers, in the thick of the race for the Big Ten West crown, secured the 17-9 win, but not without a scare. Northwestern played as well as it has in weeks despite injuries to the two quarterbacks atop the depth chart. Check out whose stock went up and down after the nail-biter in West Lafayette.
Taking advantage of opponent penalties
Throughout the afternoon, the ‘Cats were able to take advantage of Purdue miscues. In the second quarter, Northwestern lined up to go for it on a crucial fourth down near midfield. A Boilermaker jumped offside and Northwestern was able to move the chains, eventually turning Purdue’s error into three points.
To open the second half, Jalen Graham intercepted Cole Freeman for a walk-in pick-six, but was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting on his way to the end zone. The Northwestern defense stepped up big time and caused a long field goal attempt for Purdue. Mitchell Fineran missed the kick, essentially preventing a seven-point swing that kept the Wildcats in the game.
Fourth down defense
On two different drives, the ‘Cats met the moment and came up with critical fourth down stops on their own territory. In the first quarter, Northwestern halted Purdue’s opening drive, keeping Aidan O’Connell’s pass to TJ Sheffield short of the chains.
In the third quarter, Aidan Hubbard and Adetomiwa Adebawore kept an O’Connell scramble inches short of the line to gain, forcing the turnover on downs. Although the defense gave up yardage, it was opportunistic and physical when it mattered most.
After his hot start to the season, Evan Hull had cooled off in the past few weeks. But against Purdue, the junior running back returned to form and was the best skill player on the Northwestern offense. He finished the day with 22 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown that put the game within reach.
Hull had nearly half of the ‘Cats total yardage and was a bright spot for an offense that largely struggled in West Lafayette. Hull now has 860 rushing yards and 513 receiving yards in what has been an impressive dual-threat season for the junior running back.
Honorable Mentions: Hoodie Cam Mitchell, Sean McLaughlin, run defense
Reverses and end arounds
It’s nice to see Mike Bajakian try spice things up, but the offense struggled to execute on these play calls. On the doorstep of the goal line, Bajakian dialed up a trick play that saw Cole Freeman pass outside to Malik Washington, who flipped it to Andrew Clair on a quasi-reverse. The play was stuffed and the ‘Cats settled for a field goal. Later in the second quarter, Malik Washington was swallowed up for a loss of six on an end around.
On the other side of the ball, Purdue gained chunk plays on reverses to wide receiver Tyrone Tracy twice in the first half, propelling the Boilermakers to a 14-3 halftime lead.
Crunch time pass defense
After the ‘Cats scored a touchdown to make the game 14-9 early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern held all of the momentum. Aidan O’Connell responded, starting the next drive with five consecutive completions for 59 yards to put the Boilermakers in the red zone.
O’Connell sliced up the ‘Cats secondary, finding open receivers left and right to steal the flow of the game right after the ‘Cats offense finally found some rhythm. The drive ended in a field goal that put Purdue up by eight points.
The sophomore quarterback struggled in his first career start, completing only nine of his 20 passes for 78 yards. On top of that, Freeman had both an interception and a costly fumble in a disappointing showing for the ‘Cats offense. It was fair to expect Freeman to take some lumps in his debut, but the coaching staff showed little faith in the sophomore quarterback, consistently opting for wildcat formations that took him out of the play. In a must-score drive in the fourth quarter, Mike Bajakian called 10 consecutive runs.
The third-stringer came in to the game as a relatively unknown commodity. That proved especially true when several outlets scrambled to identify who was throwing passes for the Wildcats in their live box scores. ESPN attributed early passes to fellow No. 7 Ore Adeyi, a defensive back. Yahoo gave the stats to Brendan Sullivan, who was inactive. Both sites quickly fixed the box scores, but it is clear Cole Freeman has a long way to go before accomplishing stardom. It will likely either be Freeman or Brendan Sullivan at the helm next week against Illinois.
Honorable Mentions: High-stepping into the end zone, late game wildcat formations, holding penalties