In typical Northwestern fashion, the Cats pulled out a big comeback victory against Purdue with plenty of late-game excitement. NU scored the go-ahead touchdown with only 2:09 remaining in the game and had to stop Purdue on fourth down at their own five-yard line to preserve the victory.
While it's always good to get a road victory in the Big Ten, this game wasn't pretty. NU had to scratch and claw for every point and just barely had enough to come out on top. While some things went well for the Cats, others went quite poorly.
They struggled early, but the defense stepped up late in the second quarter and was a big reason for the victory. Purdue did not score in the last 40 minutes of the game and the defense forced several key turnovers.
Sherrick McManis made a spectacular interception late in the second quarter and the defense also forced three key fumbles. The biggest one came with about six minutes to play when Purdue was driving towards another score. On a 3rd-and-10 at Northwestern's 22-yard line, Quentin Davie sacked Joey Elliot and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Cats. NU went on to score the winning touchdown off that turnover.
The tackling was also much better for the majority of the game. They struggled on a few screen passes on the edge, but they held Purdue to only 62 rushing yards on the day.
They still didn't get a consistent pass rush and allowed some big gains in the passing game. However, it was definitely an improvement from previous games. If they can repeat that performance in future games, NU should be in decent shape.
Northwestern's play on special teams was also a huge factor in the game. Besides forcing two turnovers, their coverage was solid for most of the game. Purdue started only two drives past their own 30-yard line, one of which came on a turnover. They made numerous big hits and forced Purdue to mishandle a few other kicks.
One of my pet peeves the last few years has been NU's tendency to give up good field position to their opponents because they haven't had a kicker that can consistently reach the end zone on kickoffs. In this game, they were able to overcome that and not give up an extra 20 yards or so per possession in field position.
Another Slow Start
For the third week in a row, the Cats dug themselves a big hole early in the game. Purdue was up 21-3 early in the second quarter and things looked pretty bleak after Purdue stopped them on 4th-and-goal.
They still managed to pull out the win, but it is a disturbing trend. Not every opponent is going to turn the ball over six times to let them back in the game. This is supposed to be the easy part of their schedule, but NU has made things much harder than they had to be by struggling so much early in games.
If they could start playing well before the 20 minute mark, they'd have a much higher margin for error the rest of the day.
NU's offense was not particularly good in this game, and the main reason for that is the blocking. Purdue was able to consistently get clean shots at the ball carrier for short gains or losses. They also relied quite heavily on the short passing game, perhaps because they were concerned about their pass protection.
Arby Fields accumulated only 43 yards on a career-high 18 carries and the offense often sputtered in the red zone. They failed to cross the goal line with a 1st-and-goal at Purdue's two-yard line and also failed to score in four tries from the Purdue five-yard line. The Cats also settled for field goals on three other trips inside the Purdue 20.
Northwestern tried to run the ball consistently in this game, but made few plays on the ground. While I like the effort to establish the run, the blocking has to be better.
NU's next game is a non-conference matchup with the struggling Miami-Ohio Redhawks. They are 0-5 on the season, have not been within 10 points of victory against any opponent, and have been outscored 127-13 when they have faced legitimate opponents. Northwestern is heavily favored in this game and should win barring some truly uninspired play.
While their current 3-2 record is worse than many were expecting, it would have been much worse if they hadn't won on Saturday. A loss against Purdue would have made qualifying for a bowl game quite difficult, but NU made their postseason quest quite a bit easier by pulling out a hard fought game.