Sidebar: Turnover train Boilers up in red zone

Danny Daly

Purdue’s six turnovers gave Northwestern a chance to spoil Homecoming, and the Wildcats took advantage. Barely.

The Cats turned five fumbles and an interception into two touchdowns and three field goals. That accounted for all of their 24 unanswered points, helping them rally from a three-score deficit and pull out a 27-21 victory.

“The way our offense was able to get points off of turnovers was crucial,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Still, NU’s inability to find the end zone more often after turnovers kept the score close. Even though the Boilermakers were shut out during the last two-and-a-half quarters, the Cats did not take the lead until there were less than three minutes left in the contest. While six of NU’s seven red zone possessions resulted in scores, only two of those were touchdowns.

“We’ll look at some of the reasons why we didn’t get touchdowns,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to do a better job finishing.”

The struggles near the goal line started on the Cats’ first possession when they gained 77 yards on 16 plays, setting up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. But three consecutive rushes by freshman running back Arby Fields picked up only half the necessary distance, and Fitzgerald sent junior Stefan Demos out to kick an 18-yard field goal and get NU on the board.

The Cats had a similar first possession in last week’s loss. Facing third-and-one on Minnesota’s 11-yard line, NU committed a holding penalty and settled for a field goal.

Then, trailing 21-3 in the middle of the second quarter, the Cats put together another long drive that took them deep into enemy territory. On third-and-goal from six yards out, junior superback Josh Rooks caught a pass from quarterback Mike Kafka and was stopped inches short of the goal line. This time NU opted to go for it, and Purdue pounced on sophomore running back Jacob Schmidt in the backfield to force a turnover on downs.

“I really felt like we could punch it in, and I’ve got to give Purdue credit,” Fitzgerald said. “They stuffed us inside, and we didn’t make a play.”

Despite running a combined 40 plays on two drives that resulted in only three points, the Cats’ offense was not too dejected or worn out.

“When you’re on the field, you like to think you have momentum going for you,” senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve been out here for a while.’ It’s a good feeling. We know we have control of the ball, control of the game.”

The Cats scored 13 points in 91 seconds before the half, but even that could have been better. NU’s average starting field position on its last three drives of the second quarter, all of which started after a turnover, was at Purdue’s 22-yard line. One of the times the Cats were held to a field goal included a first down inside the 10.

Purdue’s performance in the last two minutes gave the defense confidence going into the second half. The Boilermakers succeeded in limiting the Cats to a field goal in the red zone more often than not.

“If they have the ball that deep in our territory, then our ultimate goal is to hold them to a field goal,” junior defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said. “You don’t want them to get seven (points), but three is kind of inevitable.”

NU had a few chances to put more points on the board in the second half, particularly through the air. But Kafka missed a wide-open Drake Dunsmore crossing to the back left of the end zone, and a sack on the next play forced the Cats’ fourth field goal. It also allowed the Boilermakers to retain a two-point edge.

Kafka redeemed himself with his steady play down the stretch. He ran for a crucial third-and-one inside the red zone on the Cats’ last drive and also picked up the game-winning touchdown on a two-yard keeper.

“We’ve got to execute,” Kafka said. “I’ll take the responsibility for a couple of (the the red zone mishaps) – I overthrew a couple (of receivers). That’s something we can fix. But it didn’t really hurt us in the end because we got the win, and that’s what matters.”