The Purdue Boilermakers faced 4th-and-1 from the Northwestern four-yard line, trailing by a touchdown. This was a turning point for the game. Get the yard and a touchdown and a tie game heading into the halftime locker room seemed assured. Fail to get it?
The Boilermakers found that out very quickly after Richie Worship failed to pick up that fateful yard.
With 1:49 left in the second quarter, it felt like a time Northwestern would usually eat the ball and head to the locker room satisfied with the lead. Pat Fitzgerald has rarely shown the aggression to chase after things.
But Clayton Thorson was feeling good. And the Wildcats quickly moved downfield.
In just seven plays and 1:33, Northwestern had scored on an 11-yard toss from Clayton Thorson to Bennet Skowronek. The Wildcats had a 14-point lead and all the momentum on their side.
Momentum Northwestern would never let go until the fourth quarter — when Purdue cut the lead to 10. The Wildcats won easily 23-13 over the Boilermakers at Ryan Field on Saturday, a rare complete and dominant performance. A performance that had Purdue coach Jeff Brohm saying simply Northwestern outplayed Purdue in every phase.
The Wildcats looked like a very different team than they typically do, attacking at every turn and putting the pressure on when they can.
The defense was the stalwart it usually is. The Boilermakers made just 7 of 19 third downs. Nate Hall, Joe Gaziano and Paddy Fisher were there to lay down plenty of hits and stuff the run. The Boilermakers picked up 438 total yards, but were behind the chains and losing field position. The Wildcats always had the stop when they needed it in short-yardage situations.
The offense though had its aggression turned up to 11.
Thorson threw for 296 yards on 26-for-46 passing. Justin Jackson again struggled to get going with 46 yards on 25 carries. But Thorson was confident and largely strong throughout the game. He carried the Wildcats offense.
And in those big moments, he made big plays. That has been the case through this five-game win streak.
He made more of them for longer in Saturday’s win. And that was key.
But a mindset overtook Northwestern. Fitzgerald was still going for it on fourth downs. And the Wildcats were making them to keep drives alive and control field position.
Riley Lees returned a punt 70-plus yards for a touchdown, breaking a tackle at the catch to break free down the sideline. The play was called back on a questionable block out of bounds call but the point remained. It set up Northwestern’s touchdown and an aggressive gameplan that had Northwestern putting its foot on the pedal.
It has been so rare to see the team do that. Even comfortable wins feel like a rare occasion for this team.
A 10-point game does not seem like a comfortable win. Northwestern led 23-0 and let Purdue add some points at the end. But the Wildcats were the more aggressive team from their play to their playcalling.
Everything for NU has come together at the right time to get to 7-3. Their bowl future is assured. Although their Big Ten dreams officially ended with Wisconsin’s win over Iowa earlier in the day, Northwestern is still playing well and up to their potential finally.
It has been a season of frustration in many ways. But the Wildcats have come into their own to turn this into a nice season for the team and the program.
The win over Purdue was a culmination of that. The Wildcats put all of their pieces together to get the win. And keep their momentum rolling.