Football: Injury-decimated Wildcats can’t complete upset bid to Purdue, suffer 10th straight loss


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Northwestern defenders dive for a tackle against Iowa. The Cats’ losing skid extended to 10 games in a 17-9 loss to Purdue.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — In Northwestern’s potential game-tying drive against Purdue, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian dialed up what has worked best for the Wildcats all season. Trailing 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter, NU rushed on 10 consecutive plays, including converting third- and fourth-down attempts. 

But on fourth-and-5 in Boilermaker territory, Bajakian looked to his unit’s passing game and first-time starter Cole Freeman to keep the Cats’ hopes alive. Instead, Purdue collapsed the NU pocket and Freeman took a drive-ending sack.

Battling the frigid West Lafayette weather and an opponent at the forefront of the Big Ten West race, the undermanned Cats (1-10, 1-7 in Big Ten) struggled to sustain rhythm on offense and came up short in their upset bid against the Boilermakers (7-4, 5-3 in Big Ten) in a 17-9 defeat. The loss sealed NU’s first 10-loss season since 1989, when the Cats lost all 11 of its contests.

From the secondary and linebacking corps to offensive line and tight end group, NU’s roster entered Saturday’s contest decimated by injury. Ahead of Saturday’s contest, the biggest concern was at quarterback, after sophomore Brendan Sullivan and junior Ryan Hilinski suffered injuries in last week’s loss to Minnesota.

On Monday, head coach Pat Fitzgerald informed Freeman, a sophomore who had last started a football game playing high school football in New Jersey, that he would be in the lineup against Purdue. 

“From an execution standpoint, we thought Cole would give us the best opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “He played really hard, really gritty, really tough. A ton of lessons he probably learned in his first college experience, but there are things he did today that gave us a chance to win the game.”

While Bajakian made establishing the run a priority, Freeman had his chances to prove his merits as the Cats’ starter. 

The results reflected the challenges he faced in quickly acclimating to Big Ten play. Freeman completed nine of his 20 pass attempts for 78 yards and turned the ball over on the Cats’ first two drives of the second half, while his nine carries netted 18 yards.

“I loved playing with the [team] out there,” Freeman said. “I wish I could have done more. I feel like there’s definitely things I need to go watch the film on and fix for next week, but I’m excited to learn from it and move on.”

After a lopsided first-half effort in which Purdue took a 14-3 lead on the visitors, the Cats’ second-half adjustments vaulted NU into contention in the final quarter. 

The Cats defense lost standout junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher to injury midway through the game, but kept the Boilermakers off the scoreboard after both of Freeman’s turnovers and grounded Purdue’s high-flying passing attack. Boilermaker quarterback Aidan O’Connell finished with 159 yards and struggled after throwing two touchdowns in the first half.

“I feel like it was a tale of two halves,” junior defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin said. “The first half, we had some mistakes early on and they exposed us on them, but I thought we really rallied together and came out the second half and shut them down.”

On offense, junior running back Evan Hull took over the NU offense in a pivotal touchdown drive. Hull rushed on six straight plays, culminating in a two-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation that cut the Cats’ deficit to 14-9. Coming off a quiet performance in his home state of Minnesota, the junior captain was a bright spot for NU with 22 carries for 105 yards and a score. 

After Hull’s touchdown run, Purdue made the type of winning fourth quarter plays that have put it in position for Big Ten West title contention, while the Cats reverted to their first-half form. The Boilermakers pieced together a 12-play, 65-yard drive and scored a field goal to pad their lead, then foiled NU’s next drive with the fourth down sack of Freeman.

“They’ve put themselves in position to win the West by finding ways to win one-score games,” Fitzgerald said of Purdue. “That’s the hallmark of a good team, and they’ve done a really good job of finding ways to do that.”

The Cats’ final chance to end its losing streak and earn a second win will come at home against another team in the postseason mix, in-state rival Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten).

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