Football: Northwestern’s offense and secondary falter in 32-14 loss to Purdue at Wrigley Field


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Ryan Hilinski hands the ball off to Evan Hull. The sophomore running back rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown on Saturday in Northwestern’s 32-14 loss to Purdue at Wrigley Field.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


The sequence that epitomized Northwestern’s performance on Saturday came in the fourth quarter.

Down 29-14, the Wildcats had just driven across midfield behind 26 yards on the ground and three first downs. But when senior quarterback Andrew Marty took the snap on first down, he was sacked for a two-yard loss. On second down, he was sacked again. And again on third down, as well as fourth down to help seal NU’s fifth straight defeat.

Preventing defensive pressure wasn’t the Cats’ only struggle on Saturday. The secondary gave up 423 yards to Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who connected with wide receiver Milton Wright for 213 yards and three touchdowns. And the Cats’ offense struggled to keep up. NU’s (3-8, 1-7 Big Ten) 32-14 loss to Purdue, (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) knocked it out of bowl contention for the second time in three seasons.

“I thought it was a heck of a football game until we had some self-inflicted wounds late,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald. “Credit Purdue, they’ve got some good players that made some big plays.”

The Cats, who finished with 303 yards of offense, obtained momentum with triple zeroes at the end of the first half when Marty threw a four-yard touchdown to sophomore tight end Marshall Lang.

NU was set to receive the ball to start the third quarter after deferring during the coin toss. It seemed like they would, until Purdue kicker Chris Van Eekeren slipped. His kickoff attempt went 16 yards, but NU didn’t recover the unintentional onside kick.

“Sounds like our season,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of that sequence.

Eight plays later, O’Connell connected with Wright for a 17-yard touchdown that made the score 19-7.

At quarterback, the Cats flipped between Marty — who started the game — and sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who completed eight of his 11 passes for 66 yards and an interception. He made NU’s biggest play of the day, a 46 yard pass to junior wide receiver Malik Washington.

Fitzgerald said switching quarterbacks was meant to keep Purdue off balance, as well as place each signal caller in situations that best fit their strengths and limited turnovers. After Marty threw three interceptions in each of his last two starts, the matchup against the Boilermakers was a return to form, as he completed 10 passes for 93 yards and a touchdowns.

Hilinski threw the game’s only pick late into the fourth quarter when the contest was already out of reach for the Cats.

The running game, led by sophomore running back Evan Hull, was the most dynamic part of the offense. After recent struggles, Hull ended Saturday’s game with 25 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown. Graduate running back Andrew Clair ran for 36 yards on five carries, breaking free for a 21 yard burst in the first quarter.

“It’s really about responding, you can’t control that,” Hull said.. “What the theme has been is control what you can control. When things get thrown your way, you’re not focusing on that because you can’t control that.”

Graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 37-yard attempt was blocked on the first drive. Instead of having Kuhbander attempt field goals later in the game, Fitzgerald chose to go for it on fourth down on multiple occasions well inside Purdue territory, including on the Boilermakers’ 29-yard line in the second quarter. [cq]

The Cats’ secondary struggled to contain Wright — who caught two touchdowns of over 40 yards and one 50-yard pass, as well as the Big Ten’s leading receiver, Boilermakers wideout David Bell. The Indianapolis native reeled in 12 passes for 101 yards.

Coming into Saturday, NU’s secondary was among the best in the conference, ranking third in the conference in passing yards allowed (193.3). After struggling against Purdue, the defensive backs will face an easier foe in their next matchup in the season finale against Illinois and the Big Ten’s worst aerial attack.

“We lost one on one matchups,” Fitzgerald said. “When we tackled them, we held them to field goals. We’ve got to win one on one matchups, and then we have to look at schematically if there were ways that we could help our guys.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @gablcarroll