Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: ‘Bend, don’t break’: Northwestern’s red zone stands instrumental for 23-15 victory over Purdue

Senior+defensive+lineman+P.J.+Spencer+makes+a+tackle.+In+NU%E2%80%99s+victory+over+Purdue%2C+Spencer+was+pivotal+towards+the+defense%E2%80%99s+ability+to+make+two+red+zone+stops.+
Angeli Mittal/The Daily Northwestern
Senior defensive lineman P.J. Spencer makes a tackle. In NU’s victory over Purdue, Spencer was pivotal towards the defense’s ability to make two red zone stops.

When coach David Braun was introduced as Northwestern’s permanent head coach Thursday, he praised his team’s perseverance and its ability to fight back – regardless of the circumstances. 

And in a game that had a lot of storylines — from the Wildcats’ (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) potential final game in Ryan Field for the foreseeable future to Braun’s first game of many as the official head coach — three words defined the defense’s ability to shut down the Boilermakers (3-8, 2-6 Big Ten): bend, don’t break. 

“Bend, don’t break has been a huge emphasis for us,” senior linebacker Xander Mueller said. “We know that even if we let them get into the red zone, if we stop them, they can’t win. (We’ve) been playing good defense and sound defensive tight zone. The red zone has been huge for us.”

That mantra opened the door for NU to become bowl eligible for the first time since the 2020 season. 

Over the course of the first half, the ‘Cats defense looked ill-fit to counter long and grueling Purdue drives. The Boilermakers held possession for over 19 minutes in the first half. 

“There have been so many instances this season where our guys are continuing to stay in and win games,” Braun said.  “We held off defensively until the offense caught fire. That’s winning football. That’s team football.” 

Late in the first quarter, Purdue converted a fourth and short opportunity, driving down to NU’s 14-yard line. Even though running back Tyrone Tracy Jr. posed problems for the ‘Cats all afternoon, the defense stuffed him on three consecutive plays to regain possession on a turnover of downs. 

Mueller and senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher’s two tackles at the line of scrimmage and junior defensive lineman Aidan Hubbard’s joint effort on the rusher halted a nearly seven minute 13 play, 71-yard Purdue drive with zero points. 

“We’ve embodied what great defense looks like,” Braun said. “It’s about guys playing with great leverage, great fundamentals, tackling well and finding ways to disrupt the football. Those fourth down stops were as good as takeaways. A group like this that plays fast can make basic elementary calls come to life.” 

In a game where NU’s offense initially struggled, these opportunities were especially pivotal — keeping the team’s 6-0 lead intact until the third quarter. 

Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant, who struggled to evade Purdue’s first-half pass rush, said the defense’s inspired effort helped boost the offense when it retook the field in the second half. 

“Our defense has been playing phenomenal,” Bryant said. “Their (stops) gave the offense a lot of confidence to go out there and play loose because we know they’re doing their job.” 

Early in the second quarter, Purdue looked as if it scored the game-tying touchdown — quarterback Ryan Browne broke into a simple griddy celebration after he appeared to break the plane. 

Moments later, he was ruled a half-yard short, prompting a second and goal opportunity at the one-yard line. At the time, the touchdown’s reversal appeared to merely prolong the inevitable scoring drive by an extra play or two. 

However, Braun’s defense held strong in the ensuing plays, preventing Browne and Tracy Jr. from reaching the end zone despite being less than a yard away. 

With Saturday’s Senior Day showing honoring many NU players,  the ‘Cats’ second forced turnover on downs was a collective effort sparked by an impactful bunch of upperclassmen. 

A pair of senior defensive backs — Garnett Hollis Jr. and Rod Heard II — started it off, thwarting a wide receiver screen pass for a one-yard loss on second down. Gallagher and Mueller followed suit the very next play, stuffing Tracy Jr. at the line of scrimmage, setting up fourth and goal. Heard and senior defensive lineman P.J. Spencer capped off the defensive stand by meeting the Boilermaker running back in the backfield, forcing NU’s second turnover of downs. 

Gallagher, Hollis Jr. and Heard shone bright all afternoon. The three seniors each recorded double-digit tackles and will be pivotal in NU’s ability to win the Land of Lincoln Trophy next weekend. 

“Those are three names that (any NFL team) would not be crazy to have on their teams,” Braun said. “They embody what it looks like to play the game the right way.” 

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Twitter: @aayushyagarwal7

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