NUmbers Guy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
After combining for 27 points in two straight losses to top 10 opponents, the Northwestern Wildcats rebounded against the Purdue Boilermakers, scoring 28 consecutive points en route to a 45-17 win. The ‘Cats totaled over 600 yards of offense and cruised to a victory, emptying the bench in the fourth quarter. With the win, the Wildcats move to 5-5 on the season and are now just one win away from clinching bowl eligibility for the second straight year. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the Wildcats’ win over Purdue.
Coming into Saturday’s matchup, the Boilermakers were among the worst teams in football at stopping the run. And while it took a while for the ‘Cats to get going – Northwestern averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in the first quarter – they eventually did, running for 253 yards on 46 carries, a 5.5-yard average. Both Justin Jackson and John Moten IV topped 100 yards on the day as the Wildcats gashed Purdue on the ground with eight runs of 10 yards or more. Jackson became the first Wildcat running back ever to tally three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and Moten topped 100 yards in a game for the first time in his career.
One of the ‘Cats’ problems against Wisconsin and Ohio State was an inability to gain chunks of yards on first and second down, leading to third down and long. Against the Boilermakers, the Wildcats averaged 7.9 yards on first down plays, leading to an average third down distance of just 3.5 yards. 299 of Northwestern’s 605 yards came on first down and these big gains on first down allowed them to convert almost 63 percent of their third downs against the Boilermakers. Northwestern also just had two third down and longs, compared to 11 third down opportunities of four yards or less.
After consecutive weeks forcing zero turnovers, the ‘Cats forced four against a team that came into the game with a -14 turnover margin. That said, the major key for the Wildcats was converting those turnovers into points. Northwestern scored 17 points off their four turnovers, extending their lead and eventually putting the game out of Purdue’s reach in the third quarter. For a defense that relied heavily on forcing turnovers last season, the Wildcats defense had struggled to find paydirt, but they were able to against Purdue, and it was a big difference in the game.
The ‘Cats have relied on Austin Carr a whole lot this season, almost too much. Entering Saturday’s game, Carr was targeted on 30 percent of Northwestern’s pass attempts, while no other Wildcat was targeted more than 12 percent of the time. Against Purdue, Clayton Thorson spread the ball out, targeting eight different receivers a total of 36 times. Carr had just five targets while Andrew Scanlan and Macan Wilson each had six and Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek had five apiece. Northwestern found other receivers against the Boilermakers on Saturday, something they’ll have to do more of going forward, especially with Carr graduating after this season.
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Northwestern ranks 109th out of 128 FBS teams with a 53.33 touchdown percentage in the red zone and while it’s a little nit-picky, they weren’t much better against Purdue. Northwestern scored on just five of its seven possessions of the red zone and scored touchdowns on just four, a 57.1 percentage. While it wasn’t the difference in the game, and two of the red zone trips came in garbage time, against a better team, as we saw against Ohio State, not coming away with touchdowns when in the red zone can be the difference in the game.
Hunter Niswander has improved this season, with about a four yard increase in his punting average, but against the Boilermakers, Niswander struggled, averaging just 29.5 yards per punt. Niswander did only have two punts on the day, but one was really poor, a 21-yarder that gave Purdue great field position inside Northwestern territory.