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Football: Wildcats edge Boilermakers in sloppy senior day battle

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Junior cornerback Matthew Harris and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike bring down Purdue running back Markell Jones. Northwestern's defense came up with many crucial stops to bail out the Wildcats' struggling offense.

Junior cornerback Matthew Harris and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike bring down Purdue running back Markell Jones. Northwestern's defense came up with many crucial stops to bail out the Wildcats' struggling offense.

Sophie Mann/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophie Mann/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior cornerback Matthew Harris and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike bring down Purdue running back Markell Jones. Northwestern's defense came up with many crucial stops to bail out the Wildcats' struggling offense.

Claire Hansen, Reporter

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In the last home game of the season, a late, fourth-quarter touchdown lifted Northwestern over Purdue in a game of blunders, penalties and big defensive plays.

The No. 18 Wildcats (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) rushed for 250 yards in the 21-14 victory over the Boilermakers (2-8, 1-5), improving to 8-2 for the first time since 1996.

“I’m never going to apologize for going 1-0 in a Big Ten game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “[Purdue] played their tails off and we knew that today was going to be a battle. That being said, we’ve got to be more efficient offensively.”

The offensive struggled throughout the contest, efficiently moving the ball down the field on the first drive of the game and failing to do much of anything else after that. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson had a particularly bad game, getting benched late in the third quarter in favor of backup senior Zack Oliver for two drives.

But it was Thorson who would eventually play the hero.

Tied with the Boilermakers in the fourth quarter and facing 3rd-and-14 on the Purdue 37-yard line, Thorson scrambled and ran for 16 yards, evading several Purdue defenders and stretching out to secure the first down. On the next play, Thorson rushed for another 16-yard run to bring the Cats within the 5-yard line.

Sophomore running back Justin Jackson punched in the TD with two short runs, giving NU the edge they needed to secure the win.

Thorson said that being pulled from the game for a couple drives allowed him to collect himself and execute on that fourth-quarter drive.

“I think I just needed to settle down a little bit and just get back in the groove,” Thorson said. “I think as an offense it was good. Zack came in and made some big throws and got us a little momentum there, and we just finished it off in the next drive.”

The scoring drive in the fourth quarter came after a long stretch of offensive inconsistency. Apart from the opening drive of the game and a similarly steady touchdown drive in the second quarter, offensive execution was poor at best.

At halftime, the Wildcats had just 19 passing yards on three completions and trailed the Boilermakers 177 to 233 in total yards.

Turnovers plagued the Cats in both halves. Jackson fumbled the ball in the second quarter, Thorson threw an interception in the third quarter and Oliver threw another pick shortly after going in for Thorson.

However, Purdue was unable to capitalize on any of the turnovers thanks to strong responses by the NU defense.

Senior linebacker Drew Smith sacked Purdue quarterback David Blough after each interception before the rest of the NU defense forced the Boilermakers to go three-and-out after each pick.

“When you lose a turnover ration like we did, it’s pretty rare that you find a way to win a game,” Fitzgerald said. “But our defense, we use the analogy—not to be disrespectful—but we use the analogy of being a fireman. When the bell rings when you’re a fireman, it’s time to go put the fire out. When you turn the ball over, there’s a fire out on the field and our guys have got to go put it out and our defense did that 100 percent today.”

Despite giving up 287 passing yards, NU’s pass defense prevented the Boilermakers from making any big plays through the air, save for one touchdown pass on their first play of the game.

Senior safety Traveon Henry led NU’s pass defense with two pass break-ups and one interception. Five other Cats each recorded one pass break-up.

On the ground, sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker recorded a team-high 14 tackles for the game while redshirt-freshman linebacker Nate Hall tallied eight.

Saturday’s win is the Cats’ fourth one-score win of the season, a fact that Henry said doesn’t impact the team’s confidence at all.

“Our confidence is in a great place,” Henry said. “We’re confident in our preparation, we build that throughout the week and then when game time comes we know that we are prepared. It’s really just trusting each other.”

The victory was the last home game for the 24 seniors on the team, and despite the highs and lows of the afternoon, Thorson said the focus was always on them.

“We have a big senior class this year. They’ve all worked their tails off,” Thorson said. “They’ve really set the foundation for us this year. To go 8-2 and hopefully finish even better, they’ve been huge for us this year. I’m so happy to finish them out on Ryan Field with a win.”

Email: clairehansen2018@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @clairechansen

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