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Northwestern’s Sky Team soars above injuries, inexperience against Purdue

Montre Hartage, Northwestern Wildcats, nebraska Cornhuskers

Northwestern’s secondary dubbed themselves the Sky Team. Injuries grounded them for much of the year. Saturday, they took flight again.

Montre Hartage seemed as confused as anyone when he picked up his second interception of the game as Northwestern iced away a 45-17 victory over Purdue on Saturday.

He was pointing at his fellow secondary members with this “Who me?” celebration, checking his hands to make sure everything was working. Ignoring, perhaps, the fact David Blough threw the ball directly at him as he made the catch.

His first interception was actually the impressive one as he picked off a first-half pass to set up a Northwestern score. It was the kind of confidence boost the Northwestern “Sky Team,” as they dubbed themselves before the season, needed.

It has been a long year for this group.

The incredibly talented secondary took hit after hit throughout the season. Matthew Harris suffered a concussion in Week Two and was forced to retire. Keith Watkins suffered a preseason knee injury that required surgery, knocking him out for the entire season. The Wildcats’ depth was stretched so thin, they had to shift Marcus McShepherd back to cornerback from wide receiver after moving him to the offense during the offseason.

Teams picked on the youthful Hartage and Trae Williams. Northwestern shifted its strategy with the secondary, playing cornerbacks well off the line to keep everything in front of them. They blitzed less to protect the cornerbacks.

This season, the Wildcats have given up 260.5 yards per game through the air. They are still 24th in the nation in S&P+ for pass defense. But it was clear this was their weak link. The area opponents attack heavily.

Against Purdue, Northwestern found its footing. The Wildcats’ young talent shone through.

Blough threw for 184 yards with a touchdown and three picks. They stayed relatively disciplined forcing Blough to check down, save for one long touchdown throw, and throw into tighter windows. Despite Blough’s strong early start, the pass defense especially locked down and made Purdue’s offense difficult to run.

The Boilermakers had a 10-0 lead with the offense clicking and then never got anything going again. Turnovers undoing their offensive rhythm.

As did incomplete passes, Blough completed 21 of 36 passes for the game. Purdue was not able to find its rhythm again.

It was not just Hartage though. Kyle Queiro has had his moments this year — including his killer interception a few weeks ago. Trae Williams, often the cornerback opponents pick on most, came up with several big plays.

It was not just the interceptions for this group. Their coverage was superb. Williams got beat on one play, but still recovered to an underthrown ball and obstructed the receiver’s vision to force an incomplete pass.

With Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike supporting and linebackers flying around everywhere, the secondary did not have to make a lot of tackles. But their positioning and coverage grounded a Purdue offense that was picking up chunks of years, making big plays and scoring a lot of points.

As the game to its close, the broadcaster on BTN began to opine and salivate over Northwestern’s possibilities next season. Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson will return. Walker will likely return. And everyone in this young secondary will return too.

There are the making of a very good team. And a return to the kind of defense Northwestern used to get to a 10-win season last year.

That all might be jumping the gun. Northwestern has never dealt with lofty expectations before. And they still just need one more win to reach bowl eligiblity after the disastrous 0-2 start.

Saturday, the secondary had its day and stepped up big at almost every position. The Sky Team was back in flight.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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