By Jordan Ray
Northwestern entered its game against Purdue as a 14-point favorite.
So it was a little surprising when the score was tied with five minutes left.
“You’re not just going to walk on the field and blow a team out,” Northwestern sophomore running back Justin Jackson said. “It’s not how it works, especially in the Big Ten.”
It’s certainly not how it has worked lately for Northwestern, which now has won its last three games by a total of 11 points. This one wasn’t pretty, but Northwestern (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) eked out a 21-14 win Saturday against Purdue (2-8, 1-5 Big Ten) at Ryan Field, thanks to big days from Jackson and the Wildcats defense.
The win sets up a top-25 matchup against Wisconsin next weekend that will likely have major postseason implications as Northwestern pursues a New Year’s Six bowl game, as well as its first 11-victory season.
Jackson ran for 119 yards and the game-winning touchdown, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight season, while junior Warren Long added 52 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats excelled on the ground, but struggled passing the ball against a Purdue defense now ranked 106th in the country. Northwestern threw for only 132 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns.
At halftime, Northwestern had as many passing yards (19) as Purdue had completions but led 14-7.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson completed his first three passes, but didn’t complete another until three minutes into the third quarter.
With the score 14-14 with 4:12 left in the third, Thorson was benched after throwing an interception.
“When you’ve got a rookie quarterback, even a veteran quarterback, sometimes when you take him out, give him a series, he gets a chance to exhale, and then go back in and go play,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Backup Zack Oliver wasn’t any better in relief. He threw an interception on his first possession, and the offense went three-and-out in his second.
Thorson returned with 9:59 left in the game and led the Wildcats on a 12-play, 58-yard game-winning drive, capped by Jackson’s touchdown.
“I think I just needed to settle down a little bit and get back into a groove,” said Thorson, who finished 9-of-19 for 82 yards.
After allowing a 68-yard touchdown pass on Purdue’s first play from scrimmage, Northwestern’s defense put together a solid showing. It had two sacks and allowed no first downs in the game’s final 20 minutes.
“When we run the ball, it establishes a tone and also lets our very good defense stay off the field and get the breather that they need,” Jackson said.
Northwestern improved to 6-0 when winning time of possession, this time holding the ball 31:37 to 28:23.
The Wildcats also didn’t allow any points off Northwestern’s three turnovers.
“When you’re a fireman, it’s time to go put the fire out,” Fitzgerald said. “When you turn the ball over, there’s a fire out on the field, and our guys have got to go put it out.”
It was the last home game of the season for the Wildcats, although they will be the visiting team against Illinois for the season finale at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
First will be Saturday’s road game against 8-2 Wisconsin. The Wildcats were blown off the field last time they visited Camp Randall Stadium, losing 35-6.
“It’s going to be a wild experience,” superback Dan Vitale said.