Football: Northwestern collapses under the lights

Colin Becht

Northwestern had everything going its way leading up to Saturday, setting itself up for a win that could have shaped the image of the program.

At their only home night game of the season, before the largest crowd at Ryan Field so far this year, the Wildcats were poised to go 6-0 for the first time since 1962. All they had to do was beat a Purdue team that was essentially running its second team on offense due to a plethora of injuries.

Instead, the Cats (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) were outplayed for 60 minutes and fell 20-17 to the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-0). NU had a shot to tie the game with 58 seconds remaining, but senior kicker Stefan Demos couldn’t be a hero again this week, pushing a 45-yard field goal wide right to seal the game for Purdue.

“It’s a bad feeling, a bad taste that we have in our mouth,” senior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “As they were taking a knee, we told ourselves, ‘Remember this feeling, we don’t want to have it again.'”

The Cats committed six costly mistakes on special teams. Sophomore safety Hunter Bates dropped two punts, one of which gave the ball back to Purdue at the NU 24. Senior running back Stephen Simmons muffed a kick return that left the Cats to begin their drive at their own five-yard-line. Redshirt freshman punter Brandon Williams shanked a punt for 15 yards, allowing Purdue to start its drive at the NU 32.

And biggest of all, Demos failed to convert on two fourth quarter field goals, including his miss on the potential game-tying attempt.

Demos is now eight of 13 on field goal attempts this season.

NU led 17-13 until, with 3:54 left in the game, Purdue running back Dan Dierking scored from seven yards out on a key fourth-and-one. The score capped a 14-play, 68-yard drive.

“I couldn’t have written a better script,” Dierking said. “(Quarterback) Rob Henry had the option of keeping it or giving it and I saw the hole open up, so I jerked it from him and luckily it worked out.”

Incredibly, the muffed returns and shanked punts only cost NU three points. Williams’ 15-yard punt proved harmless to the Cats as junior safety David Arnold intercepted the first play of Purdue’s ensuing drive in the end zone.

Purdue managed only a field goal after Bates’ fumble turned the ball back over to the Boilermakers. The NU defense gave up only five yards on that drive.

In earlier games this season, three points off giveaways might have been surmountable for the Cats. But on a night when the offense was less crisp than usual, those three points were enough to sink them.

“We can’t keep beating ourselves,” junior quarterback Dan Persa said. “We can’t beat two teams every week.”

Persa once again anchored the Cats offensively, completing 30 of 41 passes for 305 yards. Still, Persa had some uncharacteristic misthrows to open receivers and was kept without a passing touchdown for the first time all season. He was also sacked five times.

“We could have executed a little bit better,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The quarterback gets all the credit with a win, but obviously gets analyzed when things don’t go their way.”

NU converted only eight times on 18 third downs, well below its eight of 11 performance against Minnesota and 11 of 17 against Central Michigan.

“It looked like a couple times that they covered us, a crazy concept,” Fitzgerald said. “It didn’t look like we had any major issues on third down.”

Persa still ended up with one touchdown on the ground, though he only had 24 yards on 20 carries.

Junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert led all receivers with 11 catches for 124 yards, both career highs for him.

“It’s not a surprise to us,” Fitzgerald said of Ebert’s success this season. “Jeremy’s just a playmaker.”

On the ground, NU gained just 84 yards on 42 carries and did not have a single run in double digits. Junior Jacob Schmidt had 12 carries for 32 yards, including a two-yard touchdown run.

NU seemed to have the game in hand when Schmidt broke free for a 22-yard rush to the Purdue four-yard line with just over a minute left, but the play was called back due to a holding call on junior center Ben Burkett. That penalty forced NU to go for the field goal try that Demos missed.

“If we continue not to kill ourselves, I think we’ll be fine,” Fitzgerald said. “We popped the ball there at the end, but we got the penalty.”

Conversely, Purdue had little trouble moving the ball on the ground and almost exclusively relied on its ground game. The Boilermakers ran the ball 42 times for 232 yards, a 5.5 yards per carry average.

Both of Purdue’s touchdowns came on the ground, a one-yard run by Henry and the seven-yard run by Dierking.

Henry led all rushers with 140 yards on 16 carries, while Dierking gained 22 yards on seven attempts. Senior running back Keith Carlos added seven carries for 64 yards, the bulk of them coming on a 51-yard pitch play.

Given its success rushing the ball, Purdue needed little from its passing attack. Henry, a redshirt freshman, completed just six-of-18 passes for 47 yards with one interception.

NU has a bye week next week before taking on undefeated Michigan State at home on October 23.

“Our bye week comes at a good time,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll refocus, reenergize.”

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