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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s bowl-clinching victory over Purdue

With a 23-15 win over Purdue, Northwestern football is going bowling for the first time since 2020.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats welcomed the Purdue Boilermakers to Ryan Field for the final home game of the 2023-24 season. The ‘Cats got it done, putting their overall record above .500 for the first time this season. Here are five things we learned from Saturday morning’s contest.

The ‘Cats came to play in a jam-packed morning

Senior Day. Coach Braun’s first game with the interim tag removed. Last game at Ryan Field. Bowl hopes are on the line. What more could you ask for? There were lots of storylines for this game, yet the ‘Cats blocked out the noise and held on for the win. Cam Porter led the way with two rushing scores, while Ben Bryant threw for 230 yards and a touchdown.

Northwestern will need to continue this theme in the upcoming weeks. With one final game against Illinois before playing in its first bowl game in three years, Northwestern must focus. There is no worse time than the end of the college football season for distractions to get the best of a team (looking at you, Michigan). The ‘Cats have shown they can dial in and get the job done, and they will need to do so going forward in order to bring a bowl game victory back to Evanston.

Coming out hot is key

In last week’s game against Wisconsin, the ‘Cats jumped out to a 24-3 halftime lead before holding on for a 24-10 victory. Two weeks before that domination, Northwestern welcomed the Maryland Terrapins into town, in which the ‘Cats jumped out to a 24-14 lead in the first half. They also won this game, with a final score of 33-27.

Against Purdue, the ‘Cats came out flying yet again. The defense forced a three-and-out on the Boilermaker’s first possession, followed by Cam Porter scoring a seven-yard touchdown on the first offensive drive. The defense also stood tall for two major stops on fourth down, including one on Northwestern’s one-yard line.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. The ‘Cats have proven that in order to win games, they have to jump out to an early lead. Yes, there was an early-season come-from-behind victory over Minnesota where Ben Bryant channeled his inner Tom Brady in the second half, yet how likely is it to happen again?

Defense, defense, and more defense

The defense continues to be the bright spot of this team. In the last six games, the Northwestern defense has held the opponent to 20 or fewer points. The one exception was against a Maryland offense that put up 27 points, but I think we all know how that game turned out.

Nonetheless, Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller, the Big Ten’s second and sixth leading tacklers respectively, led the way for a Wildcat win. Gallagher had 14 tackles, while Mueller intercepted Ryan Browne’s pass with under a minute to play to seal the victory and secure a bowl for Northwestern. Northwestern’s defense managed to limit the Boilermakers to a measly 140 passing yards, while also forcing a punt, fumble, interception, missed field goal and two turnovers on downs, all in the first half.

The offense is looking better

The Wildcats are beginning to have some life on the offensive side of the ball. Although the group looked to be a promising offense at different points of the season, the ‘Cats scored just seven points in a punt-filled game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Wrigley Field. Yet, they bounced back against Wisconsin and followed that performance up with another win against Purdue.

By no means is the offense looking perfect. There is still lots of room for improvement, yet it is important to take a look on the positive side. Ben Bryant was connecting with Cam Johnson, Bryce Kirtz, and A.J. Henning throughout the game, and found Johnson for a 52-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Bryant’s 230-yard performance was his second-highest of the season. Meanwhile, Cam Porter’s 95-yard game was a season-high, which includes his 34-yard rushing touchdown early in the 4th quarter.

Northwestern is able to handle clutch moments

Despite the ‘Cats leading the entire game, Purdue had a chance to send the game to overtime in the closing seconds with a touchdown and two-point conversion. On Northwestern’s 34-yard line with 27 seconds left, a Boilermaker come-from-behind victory was definitely not out of the question. Luckily, Northwestern’s defense was locked in, intercepting the pass and running out the game clock on the ensuing drive.

This last defensive stop by the Wildcats is encouraging to see, as it proves they can clutch up in big moments, and not cave in and blow the lead. Down the final stretch of the season and approaching a bowl game, gritty final plays and wins like these are crucial to set the tone and ensure a winning record.