By Eric Rynston-Lobel
If someone would’ve told you Aidan Smith would be the starter for Northwestern’s week 9 game against Purdue when the schedule came out last year, you probably would’ve thought something wasn’t going right.
If someone would’ve told you Kyric McGowan would be the starting running back alongside Smith for that game, you probably would’ve thought there was more than just one thing that wasn’t going right.
On Saturday, those many things all came to fruition: inconsistent offense, injuries and a lack of discipline to name a few. Despite having as many passing touchdowns on Saturday as it had in its first eight games of the season, Northwestern was still unable to beat an injury-ravaged Purdue team, falling 24-22 at home. At 1-8, the ‘Cats have officially been eliminated from any possibility of playing in a Bowl game in 2019.
The offense started fast. On the second Northwestern play from scrimmage, McGowan broke free for a 79-yard touchdown run, the longest play for the offense this year. By the end of the first quarter, Smith had more passing yards (89) than he had in three of the previous six games he played in.
But then things seemed to go back to what we’ve become accustomed to in 2019. The offense was held off the scoreboard in the second and third quarters (the only points came on a Joe Gaziano safety). And then in the fourth, the defense and special teams sputtered.
Leading 22-21 with just under 10 minutes remaining, Smith drove the offense 48 yards on 14 plays over the course of seven minutes to set up junior Charlie Kuhbander for a 32-yard field goal attempt. The ball clanked off the left goal post, and Purdue took over with a chance to win.
After commending the toughness of his guys, Fitzgerald quickly shifted to addressing some of the problems that have plagued his team since week 1.
“The difference was discipline,” Fitzgerald said. “Self-inflicted wounds with all the penalties: a holding call in the red zone, and then the penalties on the two-minute drive that obviously gave them enough yards to make the field goal.”
After being the second-least penalized team in college football last year, the ‘Cats have been unable to replicate such success this season. On Saturday, NU committed nine penalties for 86 yards.
The most crucial came on a Purdue 4th and 4 from the Northwestern 39-yard line. Boilermaker QB Aidan O’Connell lofted a pass deep down the right side that J.R. Pace appeared to intercept to seal the game, but instead defensive back Cam Ruiz was flagged for pass interference, keeping the visitors’ hopes alive. Three plays later, J.D. Dellinger knocked a 39-yard field goal through the uprights to give Purdue the lead and ultimately the win.
Discussing the defense on that final drive, Fitzgerald presented a simple approach.
“(We were running) a defense to hopefully stop them. Didn’t work.”
Although Ruiz found himself on the wrong end of a consequential play at the end of the game, he ended one of two long droughts: entering the game, the defense hadn’t “forced” a turnover since 9/28 against Wisconsin, until Ruiz intercepted O’Connell in the first quarter.
“It felt good because we’d been emphasizing turnovers for a really long time, and to help the offense out, I felt like we took the momentum back,” Ruiz said.
Overall, though, Ruiz wasn’t thrilled with his performance.
“I’m hard on myself, so I think I played a mediocre game,” he said.
The other major drought ended on Saturday was the six weeks since the last Northwestern touchdown. That came at Nebraska on 10/5 in a 13-10 loss. The dry spell ended after McGowan’s run and appeared to be in the distant past after Smith found Jace James in the endzone to make it 14-0 in the first quarter. It would up being just a mirage.
“Yeah it was cool,” Fitzgerald said of McGowan’s touchdown. “I don’t know, how’d the boundary look? The guys looked excited, pretty happy. Would’ve been nice to have a few more though.”