4 plays that changed the game in Northwestern vs. Purdue

By Harrison Larner

Northwestern beat Purdue 27-20 on Saturday for its first 4-0 start since 1996. The win also puts it in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West. Here’s a look at four plays that defined the game for the Wildcats:

1st Quarter: Key Third-Down Conversion 

On the opening drive of the game, Northwestern came out aggressive, passing in four of its first five plays and scoring a touchdown. Early in the drive, the ‘Cats found themselves in a third-and-13 situation on their own 39-yard line in a play that always seems to separate good quarterbacks from great ones.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey extends the play to find Riley Lees for 16 yards. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

Here, Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey drops back then evades pressure by sliding to the left. He does a great job of resetting his base and freezing the defender before taking off on a scramble downfield. This too turns out to be a facade as Ramsey keeps his eyes downfield just enough to see a wide-open Riley Lees on the left and connects for a first down. 

The big picture: This is yet another example of great patience and poise from Ramsey but perhaps even more impressive is the play of freshman left tackle Peter Skoronski (red circle). The former 4-star recruit effectively holds his block for well over four seconds and probably prevents a sack as well. He has been excellent this season in replacing departed left tackle and potential top-10 NFL draft pick Rashawn Slater. 

2nd Quarter: Purdue Fourth-Down Touchdown (With Some Help)

Midway through the second quarter, Purdue is trying to convert on fourth down. They come out in an offset I-Formation with one receiver on the weak side. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell fakes a handoff then scans through his first progression on the right before dumping it off to tight end Garrett Miller on the crosser for a touchdown.

The big picture: At first glance this appears to be a huge coverage breakdown for the ‘Cats. However, a different replay angle shows a contrasting story. Cornerback JR Pace appears to be blocked by the referee in his pursuit of Miller. While Pace would not have been guaranteed to make the tackle downfield, it does add some much-needed context to this play. 

A clever play design from the Purdue offense has the referee laying an accidental screen on Northwestern safety JR Pace. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

3rd Quarter: Momentum-Shifting Forced Fumble

Now just a one possession game, Purdue needs to convert on third-and-9 to keep its drive alive. Northwestern gets a strong pass rush and forces O’Connell to step up in the pocket. The Purdue quarterback has a fairly reckless pump fake at the line of scrimmage and defensive lineman Eku Leota punches the ball out for the turnover. 

Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell steps up to run but has the ball knocked out from behind by Eku Leota. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

The Big Picture: Leota’s nose for the ball provided a major momentum shift in the second half. This is also yet another reminder of the elite awareness of Paddy Fisher to pick up the loose ball. Northwestern scored a few plays later when Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman scored his third touchdown of the game, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished for Northwestern since 2016.

4th Quarter: The ‘Cats’ Last Final Stand

After Northwestern gave up points in the second half for the first time all season, it was clear this game (as so many seem to do for NU) would come down to the final few drives. A Leota sack on third-and-7 set up a fourth-and-14. 

Defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore reaches up to tip Purdue’s final pass of the game. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

O’Connell tries to complete a pass to star receiver David Bell but defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore leaps up for a game-sealing deflection. 

The Big Picture: Adebawore should get much of the credit for this play but we cannot ignore the lockdown coverage from Greg Newsome II here.

Cornerback Greg Newsome II blankets Purdue’s star receiver David Bell to seal the win for Northwestern. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

Newsome was tasked with shutting down one of the best receivers in the Big 10 all game and he consistently prevented big plays. WNUR Sports writer Ryan Choe listed Newsome and the secondary’s performance as the No. 1 “thing to watch for” and the Northwestern defensive backs passed this legitimate test versus the Boilermakers offense. 

All eyes are now on Northwestern’s matchup next week with Wisconsin where the winner will be primed to take the Big Ten West title. But if this week’s performance is any indication, it would be difficult to bet against the ‘Cats.