Northwestern (3-2, 1-1) notched its first Big Ten win of the 2009 season and held on to win against Purdue (1-4, 0-1) by a final score of 27-21. After allowing Purdue to score touchdowns on their first three possessions, the Northwestern defense came up with some big turnovers as the 'Cats clawed their way back, taking the lead with just over two minutes to play. Although Purdue drove down the field and had a first and goal with a chance to win, the NU defense held on for the win, forcing two incompletions on third and fourth down to seal the win.
The Wildcats started off on the wrong foot, with RB Arby Fields fumbling on the 'Cats' first play from scrimmage, which the Boilermakers subsequently turned into a touchdown. Northwestern responded with a long 20 play, 78 yard drive, but couldn't punch it in and had to settle for a short field goal to cut the Purdue lead to four.
After that, though, NU's defensive problems continued as Purdue had two 70-plus yard drives for touchdowns that were marred by missed Wildcat tackles, allowing the Boilers to take a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter. Things looked grim for NU, but the Wildcats would find a way to get back into the game.
NU went on another 20 play drive covering 72 yards and had a fourth and goal at about the one yard line, but the 'Cats couldn't punch it in and turned the ball over on downs. Ironically, that's when things started to go right for the Wildcats, with just over two minutes left in the first half.
On the very next play, Purdue QB Joey Elliot threw an interception out of the end zone to Sherrick McManis as he made a nice break on the football. That set up NU for a short 18 yard drive capped off by an Arby Fields touchdown run.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball was fumbled with Northwestern recovering, allowing the 'Cats to take over at the Purdue 23 yard line and kick a field goal to cut the lead to eight.
Then, after fielding the kickoff cleanly, RB Jaycen Taylor fumbled at the 24 yard line and NU recovered again, allowing the Wildcats to drive and kick another field goal to reduce their halftime deficit to just five. Purdue wisely kneeled to run out the clock and end the first half.
So, after Purdue had a 21-3 lead and the ball with just over two minutes to play, they turned over the football on three of the next four times they touched the ball, and NU cut into the lead and went into halftime with a 21-16 score.
Northwestern scored the only points of the third quarter on a field goal that followed a brilliantly executed punt by Stefan Demos that hit a Purdue gunner on the hand and was subsequently recovered by NU.
The turning point of the game came with Purdue driving and the clock winding as Joey Elliot was sacked and stripped at the NU 28 yard line, with the Wildcats recovering and tallying their sixth takeaway of the day.
QB Mike Kafka would then lead NU on the go-ahead 11 play, 67 yard drive that was capped off with a QB keeper for the touchdown. The Wildcats went for two in order to extend their new-found lead to eight, and were successful with a two point conversion toss to Drake Dunsmore, even after suffering a five yard penalty.
Although NU had solid kick coverage and forced Purdue to take over at their own 16 on the kickoff, the Boilers drove down the field and had first and goal on the NU seven. But, the Wildcats' defense held and NU came up with a potential turnaround win of the season, with the 'Cats winning their third consecutive Big Ten road game.
Player of the Game
NU P/K Stefan Demos (4-of-4 FG, 1-of-1 XP, 7 kickoffs for 61.7 yards per kick, 4 punts for 31.2 yards per punt with one recovered by NU) Although he didn't nail a game-winning field goal, his consistent play during the game and one precise punt got the 'Cats back into a game that they trailed early. Even with NU failing to punch it in for a touchdown on multiple occasions, Demos did his job and put points on the board. And there was that perfectly placed punt that hit a Purdue player, allowing NU to recover and put points on the board.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions
QB Mike Kafka (28-of-44 passing for 224 yards, 18 carries for 39 yards and 1 TD) The most important thing that Kafka did today doesn't appear in his stat line, and that is zero turnovers. Although Kafka missed some open receivers and didn't finish the day with a TD pass, he led NU on a game-winning drive and protected the football, something the 'Cats had major problems with over the last two weeks.
Run Defense: The 'Cats' D had one of their best performances of the year, holding Purdue scoreless for the final 40 minutes of the game and keeping RB Ralph Bolden well contained as he finished with just 53 yards on the ground. At the end of the day, Purdue had just 2.2 yards per carry, and even after removing NU's three sacks, the Boilers averaged below three yards per carry.
What to Work on
Red Zone Offense: The Wildcats were 6-of-7 in the red zone, but four of those scores were field goals, meaning that NU left a lot of points on the field (and, there was the fruitless trip to the doorstep of the end zone). Some can be attributed to play calling and some can be attributed to Kafka missing open receivers, but NU needs to convert more scoring chances for touchdowns to survive games where they don't get six takeaways.
Defense: Although the run defense was very much improved, NU still yielded a total of 375 yards and relied on turnovers to stop the Purdue offense. They came out flat (Purdue scored on its first three drives) and missed tackles (see Aaron Valentin's 67 yard TD catch and run) early, but thankfully had enough left in the tank to stop the Boilers at the end when it mattered most. The Wildcat D will have to continue looking like it did for the final 40 minutes of the game, which was diametrically opposite of what was seen through the first 20 minutes.
Time of Possession: The 'Cats went on two 20 play drives in the first half (yielding just three points total) and ate up a ton of clock, giving them 21:59 of first half time of possession (leaving just 8:01 for Purdue). Things evened out a bit in the second half, but NU still ended the day with almost 36 minutes of possession, although the 'Cats would likely have rather seen touchdowns instead of field goals as the result of some of those drives.
Turnovers: One can't talk about this game without bringing up the turnovers. NU came into the game with only seven takeaways on the season and almost doubled that number with six on the day. In last year's meeting between these two teams, the Wildcats racked up five takeaways, although they capitalized on the errors a little more, running away with the game.
Running Game: Even with both Fields and Kafka running for touchdowns, the Wildcats averaged a measly 2.6 yards per carry (with sacks removed). NU admittedly is a bit thin on running backs, with Stephen Simmons and Scott Concannon unavailable for the game (Alex Daniel is also out for the year), forcing the 'Cats to rely on true freshman Fields and former walk-on Jacob Schmidt. Even so, the offensive line hasn't exactly opened gaping holes for the running backs to utilize.
In-Game Adjustments: On Purdue's first three drives, they racked up 183 yards and scored three TDs. On their next six drives combined, the Boilers netted just six total yards and turned the ball over four times. Although Purdue moved the ball well on their final four drives (170 yards), the NU defense held (and two fumbles also helped the cause).
Second Half Play: Going into the game, NU had been outscored by 19 points in the second half of games this year, allowing an average of 15.5 points per second half. But, the 'Cats responded in a big way by shutting out Purdue in the second half, while scoring 11 points of their own.
Third Down Conversions: The Wildcats continued to regress on both sides of the ball, converting just 47 percent of the offense's third downs while allowing Purdue to convert 60 percent of theirs. Thankfully, the turnovers more than made up for the third down issues for the 'Cats.
Fourth Down Conversions: NU went 2-of-3 on the day to improve their season rate to 75 percent (6-of-8). Note that all three of the attempted fourth down conversions for NU came on one drive, the one that unfortunately ended with the 'Cats unable to punch the ball in on fourth and goal at the one.
The Wildcats came away with a hard earned road Big Ten victory after playing a full 60 minutes of football, something they haven't exactly done over the last couple of weeks. The win sets up NU nicely going into a home matchup against their final nonconference opponent, Miami (OH), who is 0-5 on the season. The Wildcats now have a legitimate shot at bowl contention and can still make some noise down the stretch after getting some momentum going into the second half of the season.
Although some things still need some work, it was nice to see NU come back from an early deficit and persevere in the end.