Post-Game Analysis: Purdue
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, as the saying goes, "if you play with fire, eventually you'll get burned."  And that is exactly what happened to the Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) on Saturday night at Ryan Field as they did indeed get burned by the Purdue Boilermakers (3-2, 1-0) who came in hurting but executed their game plan to beat the 'Cats 20-17.  This post-game wrap up will focus on this game specifically, but during the upcoming bye week look for a first-half recap and further analysis of Northwestern's sloppy play during the past 3 games and what that means going forward this season.  Now onto the wrap-up.

The 'Cats looked good early, forcing Purdue to punt on their first two possessions after gaining just 29 total yards on those drives, while NU took its second possession downfield on a typically efficient 13 play 80 yard drive capped by a Jacob Schmidt TD plunge to put the Wildcats up 7-0 in the first quarter.  But what would happen on Purdue's next possession would foreshadow the performance for the rest of the evening.

Purdue, who came into the season with Miami (FL) transfer Robert Marve, a solid spread offense passer, leading the attack, had to significantly change their offense after he went down with a season-ending knee injury in their last game against Toledo.  They took the week off to modify their offense into a run-base zone read option offense featuring lots of speed out of the backfield, with a good amount attributed to speedy redshirt freshman QB Rob Henry.  And after losing their presumed starting RB Ralph Bolden in the preseason, they threw a variety of speedy guys into the backfield to mix things up.  And while this plan of attack didn't always result in sustained drives, it did provide the explosion plays that the Boilermakers needed to steal a road win from a previously undefeated opponent.

On their second offensive play after NU's lead-taking TD, Henry faked the handoff, then pulled the ball in and took off down the middle of the field as NU defenders got stuck in the flow towards the running back.  He scampered 67 yards before being barely chased down by NU CB Jordan Mabin at the NU 9 yard line.  He would take it in himself on third and goal from the 1 yard line to tie the game.

The issues would continue on the ensuing kickoff, with NU KR Stephen Simmons mis-judging the kick and allowing it to bounce in front of him and then trickle behind him.  Fortunately, Jacob Schmidt was attuned to the situation and dove on the ball at the 5 yard line, preventing a potentially disastrous change of momentum.  But after picking up a first down following two solid Schmidt runs, NU QB Dan Persa began to feel some heat from the Purdue D and threw an uncharacteristic three consecutive incomplete passes.  That was followed by yet another special teams gaffe as Brandon Williams shanked a rugby-style punt, giving Purdue the ball and some momentum at the NU 32 yard line.

Thankfully, the Northwestern defense responded; Purdue was trying to grab the momentum, but the 'Cats got some backfield pressure as Henry went back to pass and forced a long lob into the end zone that was caught by NU S David Arnold in the end zone to prevent the Boilermakers from capitalizing on excellent field position.

Although the 'Cats made it into Purdue territory on the following drive, the 'Cats drive stalled out and Northwestern was forced to punt.  Much of the credit for the Boilermakers' upset victory must go to their defense, who dropped 7 back in coverage and relied upon the front 4 to generate much of the pressure against Persa, and they did fairly well for themselves, preventing the NU QB from getting any passing TDs while accumulating 5 sacks and 1 QB hurry on the night (not counting other times when Persa was forced to scramble).

The next big mistake came after forcing Purdue to punt, with NU's PR Hunter Bates muffing the punt with Purdue recovering at the NU 24 yard line.  Credit the NU defense for coming up with a big stop, forcing a field goal on yet another potentially big momentum-changing drives.  The 'Cats subsequently drove down the field rather quickly, but got stuck behind the chains after a holding call on C Ben Burkett with the ball at the Purdue 24 yard line.  Northwestern settled for a 46 yard Stefan Demos FG to tie the game going into halftime, which was not a bad result considering the mistakes in the half by Northwestern.

NU came back in the second half in style, with Simmons taking the opening kick 42 yards to set up a nice 12 play 58 yard drive featuring 4 third down conversions and a Persa TD plunge to help the 'Cats re-take the lead, 17-10, early in the 3rd quarter.  After, trading punts, the NU defense would again give up a long play, a 51 yard run from Purdue's Keith Carlos to set up another FG from the reliable Carson Wiggs to keep the Boilermakers in it 17-13.

Moving into the fourth quarter, the 'Cats had two more almost-errors, with a Drake Dunsmore fumble fortunately fallen upon by NU OT Patrick Ward, and another muffed punt by Bates thankfully recovered by himself.  By that point, it was clear that the Wildcats have become an undisciplined and mistake-prone team that has allowed two seemingly inferior opponents to stick around way too long in games where NU was seemingly out-playing those opponents.

Later in the fourth, the 'Cats once again found themselves driving and looked to take a 7 point lead with a Demos FG attempt from 41 yards, but the line couldn't handle the rush, and the attempt was blocked, giving Purdue the ball and some momentum at their own 32.  This time, Purdue didn't need an explosion play, instead accumulating 4 first downs and finally converting on a fourth and one inside the NU 10 yard line to take the lead 20-17 with a Dan Dierking run.  With just under four minutes in regulation, Northwestern had its chance to once again escape with a win or at least tie the game and take it to overtime.

The NU offense went off to the races, as Dan Persa hit 5 passes for 34 yard with some runs mixed in for good measure as NU drove to the Purdue 26 yard line.  On third down and five, the 'Cats came up with a great play call with a handoff to Schmidt who took it down to the Purdue 5 yard line on what looked to be just the play NU needed to pull off the win.  BUT, those mistakes came back to haunt the 'Cats, as Burkett was once again flagged for holding, sending the 'Cats back 10 yards and putting even a game-tying field goal in jeopardy.

A completed pass just short of the first down marker forced a Demos 45 yard attempt for the tie, with just about 1 minute left and NU holding 2 timeouts, meaning that this was NU's last legitimate shot.  Demos got the kick off, but it was wide right the whole way, basically closing the door on NU's chance to reach 6-0 for the first time since 1962.

Purdue was content to kill the clock as much as they could, taking a knee on the first two downs and forcing NU to extinguish its remaining timeouts.  On third down, Purdue ran a fake handoff and bootleg by Henry who ran around the opposite side of the field before taking a knee in front of two NU defenders.  Unfortunately, NU's Quentin Davie was indecisive and eventually made the wrong decision by pushing Henry after he knelt.  While it was before the whistle and wasn't a dangerous tackle, the flag came out for a personal foul, giving Purdue a first down and the ability to really kill the clock, while the 'Cats' hopes of even a miracle finish in the closing seconds wouldn't come to fruition.

In the end, Purdue came out with a rather basic plan of attack, and did it just well enough to win the game.  On defense, the relied on pressure from their front 4, including All-Big Ten DE Ryan Kerrigan, to put the heat on the NU passing game while dropping 7 to help a young secondary, and that plan worked rather well, allowing just 2 NU TDs on the evening.  On offense, the Boilermakers went to a run-heavy zone read offense that utilized the speed of Henry and their RBs/WRs to get yardage when they could and take advantage of the explosion plays when the NU D had a mental lapse.  Finally, they left it up to the 'Cats to make enough errors to seal the win, and NU, to the dismay of the decent crowd in attendance, lived up to their end of that bargain.

Now the Wildcats get a bye week in which to contemplate the first loss of their season and their seemingly regressing level play of play over the last three weeks before taking on Michigan State for homecoming in what will be their toughest test of the season, with MSU now sitting at 6-0 after a somewhat easy defeat of their previously undefeated in-state rivals, Michigan.

Player of the Game

Purdue QB Rob Henry (6-of-18 passing for 47 yards, 1 INT; 16 carries for 132 yards, 1 TD)  A lot of credit has to go to the redshirt freshman who came out in his first collegiate start, on the road against a Big Ten team and without some of his best offensive weapons, and found a way to win.  He read the NU defense well for most of the evening and made it pay with some nice ball fakes.  While he's far from the polished passer, he did barely enough to keep the 'Cats honest and then used explosion plays to move the ball in a position to take the road win.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (30-of-41 passing for 305 yards; 15 carries for 51 yards after removing sacks)  Persa was indeed off a little this evening, throwing 11 incompletions, the majority of which were actually his fault.  But, that wasn't the reason NU lost the game, and Persa did his job by moving the 'Cats into a position to win the game.

WR Jeremy Ebert (11 receptions for 124 yards)  Ebert continues to lead the conference and is 5th nationally in receiving yards, now averaging 93.3 yards per game.  He's obviously Persa's top target and does well both catching the ball and getting valuable yards after the catch.  He personally accounted for 5 NU first downs on the evening.

What to Work on

Offensive Line Play:  NU allowed 5 sacks for 27 yards on the game, despite facing a 4 man rush much of the night (on the year, NU now ranks 98th nationally in sacks allowed).  NU only averaged 2.7 yards per carry from the running backs.  And the line was called for holding 3 different times, including two very costly penalties by Burkett at the end of each half that forced NU to go for field goals, including the final missed FG that cost the 'Cats the game.  All of those areas are unacceptable for a unit that came in with a lot of potential but are now looking like one of the most vulnerable units on the team this season.

Special Teams Errors:  One muffed kickoff return, two muffed punt returns (one recovered by Purdue), a shanked punt, a blocked FG, and a missed FG that would have tied the game.  Those all continue a disturbing trend by NU special teams that almost cost the 'Cats wins earlier this year and definitely did so this evening.

Penalties:  NU added 8 penalties for 60 yards on the day, and some of those directly led to the loss.  The 'Cats have averaged 9.7 penalties per game for 81.7 yards per game over the last three contests, which has helped keep all of those games close and led to disaster this time.

Stopping Explosion Plays:  Purdue had just 2 plays longer than 20 yards all night, but those were very costly: both runs of over 50 yards that set up a total of 10 points for the Boilermakers.  Take away those plays, and the NU D would have had a pretty darn good outing considering that 42.3% of Purdue's total yards came on those 2 plays (along with 50% of their points coming off of those plays).  All it took was one guy to get caught up in the flow towards the fake and/or one guy out of position on the edge to give up those plays that let Purdue take the game.

Random Observations

Total Yards:  Once again, NU outgained its opponents only to let costly mistakes turn the game in the opponent's favor.  This time, NU had 110 more total yards than Purdue, but managed to drop the game.  So far this season, the 'Cats are, on average, outgaining their opponents by 68.9 yards per game.

Points off Turnovers:  Through the first four games of the season, NU accumulated 53 points off of turnovers (and had a +7 turnover margin).  Over the last two games, NU has 0 points off turnovers (and a -2 turnover margin).  The inability to (1) generate takeaways and (2) get points off of turnovers has led to extremely tight games for the 'Cats, one of which they went on to lose.

Attendance:  While some hoped for attendance potentially reaching 40,000, NU ended up putting a respectable 33,847 in the seats, which continues an upward trend relative to last season.  Hopefully remaining home matchups against top tier Big Ten teams MSU and Iowa will help continue that trend, although it will be tough for some NU fans in attendance to get over the disheartening loss.

Persa's Passing: Despite a "down" day in which he completed "just" 73.2% of his passes, Dan Persa still leads the nation in completion percentage at 78.0% and is 4th in passing efficiency at 173.3 (he was hurt by his lack of passing TDs on the day).

Final Thought

It was indeed a disappointing game for the Wildcats, who seemingly had everything set up for a 6-0 start for the first time in 48 years, but lost a game to an opponent with a down but not out attitude who will undoubtedly win some more games this year despite losing 3 of their top offensive weapons (in fact, don't be surprised to see them reach a bowl this year on the backs of their defense and running game).

At least NU has a chance to regroup in their week off as they try to keep their eye on going 1-0 each week down a tough second half of the season in order to assure themselves of a first-ever third consecutive bowl trip.  If they can indeed refocus and eliminate most of the mental errors, I have little doubt that they will be making that trip in late December or early January.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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