Football: Northwestern breaks touchdown drought, yet falls to Purdue 24-22 in final moments


Daily file photo by David Lee

Riley Lees is tackled by two Purdue defenders. The senior receiver, who recorded 430 yards and two touchdowns last season, figures to have a large role in Mike Bajakian’s offense this year.

Andrew Golden, Sports Editor


For the first time in over a month, Northwestern scored a touchdown. But for the seventh time in seven games, the Wildcats lost.

After jumping out to an early lead, NU (1-8, 0-7 Big Ten) faltered down the stretch and J.D. Dellinger’s kick gave Purdue (4-6, 2-3 Big Ten) a 24-22 win on Saturday at Ryan Field.

It wasn’t all bad for the Cats. On the team’s second play from scrimmage, junior wide receiver Kyric McGowan lined up in the backfield and broke through the line untouched en route to a 79-yard touchdown. The Wildcats bench jumped for joy. Coach Pat Fitzgerald pumped his fists. Fans let out a collective sigh of relief.

“We came out ready to go today,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew they’d respond back. We had some drives that we left empty, points that we left out there, but I thought that we came out there ready to go, ready to play… the mark of a great competitor is a guy that’s willing to finish.”

To say Northwestern’s offense has been bad so far this season would be an understatement: the team ranked last in the country on points per game and 128th in yards per game.

But McGowan’s run ended a 34-day drought of not scoring a touchdown, and on Purdue’s next possession, the Cats ended another drought.

Coming into the game, NU’s defense hadn’t forced the turnover during that same period of time. Fitzgerald has been saying for weeks that his team needed to force more turnovers, and junior cornerback Cameron Ruiz finally got one.

With Purdue in NU territory looking to tie the game up, Ruiz broke in front of the Boilermakers’ WR to give the Cats momentum.

“It felt good because we’ve been emphasizing turnovers for a really long time,” Ruiz said. “And to help the offense out, I thought we changed momentum.”

Starting at its own 17 yard line, NU moved methodically down the field with a balanced attack. On 12 plays, the Cats ran the ball six times and threw it another six, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass from Smith to junior wide receiver Jace James.

Despite being down by 14, Purdue didn’t go away. The Boilermakers got the ball just ten seconds into the second quarter and put together their own 12-play touchdown drive to make it a one-possession game.

Neither team was able to get anything going for rest of the second quarter, aside from NU getting a safety on a Purdue intentional grounding penalty.

In the second half, the Boilermakers turned the tides back in their favor. On its first two drives of the second half, Purdue scored touchdowns on pass from quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who was making the first start of his career.

In every game where the Cats have gone down in Big Ten play, they have let the game get out of hand. But not Saturday.

NU was resilient, scoring a touchdown to take the lead back with 11:10 remaining in the fourth.

Up by one, NU put together an over 7 minute drive and had the chance to ice the game with a touchdown. Instead, junior offensive tackle Rashawn Slater was called for holding and junior Charlie Kuhbander’s field goal bounced off the left upright.

With Purdue needing a field goal to win, the Cats committed three penalties — including two accepted pass interference penalties — that set the Boilermakers up for their game-winning score.

“You look at our season, you look at the difference in two years,” Fitzgerald said. “You talk about one of the most disciplined teams in the country last year, if not the most disciplined, and where we’re at today.”

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