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What we learned from Northwestern Wildcats’ 45-17 win over Purdue Boilermakers

Justin Jackson, Northwestern Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeyes

The Northwestern Wildcats scored a thorough and complete win over the Purdue Boilermakers Saturday getting support from some much-needed places.

The Northwestern Wildcats seemed headed for disaster again early on against the Purdue Boilermakers. There is always one of those weeks for Northwestern in Big Ten season that makes everything the Wildcats want to accomplish much more difficult.

Purdue got the ball moving and kept the Northwestern defense on its heels with a pace-based offense. An early turnover helped set up an early touchdown and it was 10-0 before anyone could blink.

The Wildcats were methodical. Much like their win at Spartan Stadium, they did not panic and stuck to their gameplan. They did not leave the run, they did not panic defensively either.

Northwestern got back into the game quickly and then raced past Purdue for a 45-17 win at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday.

Clayton Thorson and Austin Carr continued their assault on opposing secondaries. Justin Jackson continued his assault on Northwestern’s record book. And the Wildcats’ defense just continued to frustrate the Boilermakers offense, forcing them to make patient throws and protect David Blough against a steady rush.

Once Northwestern gained control of the game’s momentum and pace, Purdue was licking its wounds to the end.

Northwestern’s running backs are deep

Justin Jackson is still Northwestern’s best offensive weapon and most potent weapon. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark yet again, becoming the first Northwestern running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first three seasons. Jackson is going to rewrite all the record books for Northwestern running backs.

The Wildcats showed they have some running back depth and could possibly be ready to lighten some of Jackson’s load. At least in the near future. Next year, maybe.

Pat Fitzgerald said he wanted to get Jackson fewer carriers and lighten his load. But the injury to Warren Long in Week One ended that dream. Jackson had to shoulder the burden.

John Moten’s recent emergence though has helped revitalize this dream. And he had a big game Saturday to restore that faith.

Moten rushed for 119 yards on six carries. He darted through the Purdue line in the same way Jackson does (well, not the same way, no one turns a three-yard loss into a two-yard gain like Jackson does). He was a change-of-pace with a little more speed to the outside but still found comfort running through the tackles.

Jackson rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries. So he is still the top dog and clearly so.

Moten has slowly gotten better as the year goes on. And next year it feels like Northwestern will have a nice mix of backs to choose from next year when Long returns.

The Sky Team has some bite

The secondary has been the concern throughout the season so far. The injuries that have depleted the unit have changed the course of the season in many ways. Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins going out hurt this group a lot. It turned one of the stronger units on Northwestern’s defense into one of the weakest.

The Wildcats though still have talent. This is the one unit that Pat Fitzgerald has done a good job recruiting over the years. Some of the Wildcats’ most talented players are still in the secondary. The group as a whole is still just very raw.

And teams know this and attack it.

Going up against Purdue’s strong passing attack, that concern remained. The Wildcats had to be strong against the pass. The Boilermakers can sling the ball around plenty.

After a shaky start to the game, Northwestern’s secondary came up big. Montre Hartage, the usual whipping boy for Big Ten quarterbacks this season, made several big plays to break up and defend passes. Trae Williams did too. And Godwin Igwebuike was his usual self, flying around everywhere.

Northwestern controlled the pace of the game following the initial 10-point burst. A lot of that was Northwestern’s pass defense scheme working to keep everything underneath and under control. They rallied to the ball well and missed fewer tackles than before.

Hartage and Williams especially continue to show promise and growth as this season goes on. Northwestern’s defensive renaissance is as much about their development as anyone else’s. They are the key to Northwestern’s future.

Saturday they had their day to shine.

Clayton Thorson bounces back

Clayton Thorson still has his shaky moments. He threw behind receivers and it took him a while to find his rhythm in Saturday’s game. This was a big reason why Northwestern’s offense struggled to find a rhythm against Wisconsin.

But Thorson got his mojo back and bounced back not only from last week’s performance but from his early miscues — including a big interception on Northwestern’s first drive.

Thorson threw for a career-best 352 yards, completing 23 of 36 passes. He had three touchdown passes including a dart down the middle to Austin Carr (how is he still getting open?) over the defense for a touchdown. He spread the ball around too, finding his other weapons in Garrett Dickerson and Andrew Scanlan more.

Thorson has plenty of support from the Wildcats’ run game. He should not be the primary option quite yet. But Thorson makes big throws when he has to. And is starting to make better reads on the defense.

To be sure, as this season winds to an end, Thorson has grown immeasurably and gives Northwestern plenty of comfort for the next two years.

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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