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Northwestern 31, Purdue 27: Still a Work in Progress

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The Boilers had their chances Thursday night, but could not cash in.

Northwestern v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last night was all about opportunity. Purdue had an excellent chance to capitalize on the momentum of last season by knocking off a good team at home. The atmosphere was great, too. Even with it being on a Thursday night there were more than 47,000 people in Ross-Ade Stadium, up about 2,000 from last season’s home opener. Within the game there were mini-opportunities. Purdue seized on some, but failed to seize on others. The result was the Boilers coming close, but not quite, yet again. Here are a few players and plays that really stood out to me.

POSITIVES

Rondale MooreMother. Of. God. The freshman finished with 79 yards rushing, 109 yards receiving on 11 receptions, and 125 yards on kickoff returns for a new school record of 313 all-purpose yards, breaking the old mark of 312 set by Otis Armstrong in 1972. I knew he was hyped. I called him Dorien Bryant 2.0. Aside from a dropped pass in the first quarter he was absolutely electric. On his touchdown reception he got behind the defense and snatched a ball out of the air in stride that was nearly knocked away by a defender. Then there was the jet sweep. He gets hemmed in by his own man who got pushed upfield, forcing a cut four yards behind the line of scrimmage. He then makes a second cut STILL TWO YARDS BEHIND THE LINE OF SCRIMAMGE to shake off another defender and just… leaves.

By the time he was only three yards behind the line of scrimmage he had made a pair of cuts and shaken off contact. Terry Wright was there for a key block, but the rest was simple pure, unadulterated speed. He left no less than four Northwestern defenders in the dust. One defender even horsecollared Wright out of the way at the Northwestern 35, using him as a boost and he STILL couldn’t catch him.

What does Moore do for an encore?

Jared SparksIf Sparks wasn’t 100% he didn’t show it. The sophomore was a reliable outside receiver with six catches for 76 yards and came real close to his first career touchdown in the third quarter. He was a great possession receiver and the closest thing to a downfield threat that David Blough had.

D.J. KnoxWhile the running backs did not have the best game, his 45 yard run in the third quarter seemed to break things loose a bit. He finished the night with 77 yards and a score on only 7 carries.

The Defense (Second half edition) – After giving up 31 points, including what proved to be a backbreaking TD drive before halftime, the defense pitched a second half shutout. It gave up only two first downs on the first four drives of the second half, allowing the offense every chance. We needed a stop on the second half’s opening drive and got it. We needed additional stops to tie or take the lead and got them. The offense just faltered a bit. Cornel Jones and Derrick Barnes were decent in their first extended action. Tim Cason had three pass breakups. After it looked like we were going to get run out of the stadium the defense really stepped up.

NEGATIVES

Penalties – This almost feels like it should be a pair of columns: penalties that were called and penalties not called. The above-mentioned horsecollar on Wright was one not called, but we still scored on the play. When JR Pace got the first interception off of Elijah Sindelar it only came after the Purdue receiver was tackled with the ball in the air on the play. I am not sure how that was NOT pass interference, especially when we already had a less egregious one called on the same drive three plays earlier. Skowronek also got away with a pretty blatant offensive PI on his long reception.

Then there were the ones on Purdue. All told, we had 9 penalties for 95 yards. It felt like more, mostly because each one was a backbreaker. We had a 15 yard personal foul on Northwestern’s first offensive play, moving the ball into Purdue territory. We had a holding penalty on the final drive right before halftime to move from the 25 back to the 15. Purdue probably still doesn’t get points there, but it killed any small chance we had and Brohm was going for it. On the final offensive possession we had an ineligible man downfield on the first play that killed the drive before it got started. As Northwestern was killing the clock we had two penalties that gave them first downs, including the critical Lorenzo Neal personal foul on a third down stop that sealed the game.

On the Neal play at first I thought it was a terrible call, but upon the replay it was the right call because it was clearly after the whistle. You just can’t do that in that situation, especially when we clearly had them stopped and you know Neal heard the whistle.

Elijah SindelarExcept for the three interceptions, Sindlear was great. Of course, other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln? The first pick was not on him, but the other two were not great throws. Northwestern scored touchdowns after all three as well, extracting the full measure from our mistakes. Nate Hall’s pick came at midfield and after a 40-yard pass to Bennett Skowronek needed only three plays to score. The worst was the one before halftime. Purdue had a chance to drive for a tie with 2:41 left, but Montre Hartage got a pick and returned it to the 30. Northwestern used the short field to score and that ended up deciding the game.

The Offense Under BloughThe difference between Blough and Sindelar was more pronounced than it has ever been last night. Sindelar at least provided a downfield threat and it felt like the offense had better pace. With Blough, we moved the ball in the third quarter, but at a far slower pace. At first it was effective. Blough did lead a TD drive and a 14 play field goal drive, but aside from that it was three three-and-outs. It felt like there was no downfield threat, either.

Part of it was the tight ends. Northwestern took them out of the game. Brycen Hopkins had only one catch and Cole Herdman did not have a reception for the first time since the Wisconsin game in his freshman year, breaking a streak of 29 straight games with at least one catch. Had Purdue gotten the ball back one last time I think we would have seen Sindelar, but we’ll never know.

The field goal drive proved to be frustrating, too. It was a methodical drive that spanned 14 plays and 76 yards, but we were forced to kick on 4th and 5 from the 10. We were moving slowly, but steadily down field and hda Northewstern on its heels a bit. We really needed seven points there and I felt we should have gone for it. Yeah, it was the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Northwestern defense was gassed a bit and even if you don’t get it they are deep in their own territory.

First Half Defense – As good as the defense was in the second half it was awful in the first. Jeremy Larkin finished with 143 yards and two scores, getting much of that in the first half. Sindelar did not put the defense in good positions with his interceptions, but overall tackling was poor and there was virtually no pass rush. Clayton Thorson and TJ Green both had plenty of time to throw.

FINAL THOUGHTS

After seeing last night’s game we’re clearly a work in progress and it almost feels like this is a gap year. We’re waiting for a dynamite recruiting class to come in next season and there are some good pieces like Moore, Sparks, Markus Bailey, and others that will be around, but little things like inexperience, penalties, and silly mistakes cost us. This is a team that can still win 7-8 games. The margin for error, like last season, is very thin, however.

In the end, the game is what I thought it would be: a true toss-up. Purdue had the football twice in the fourth quarter with a chance to go win the game. It went three-and-out both times. That can happen though. Northwestern is a good team and their defense really played well after Moore burned them twice. I think most people would take having the ball down 4 in the fourth quarter at home against a 10 win team. It was an opportunity, a lost one, but there will be others.

There is a lot to fix and Purdue should be favored when it plays Eastern Michigan next week. Win that, and you have two more toss-up games at home in Missouri and Boston College. Both are teams similar to Northwestern in that they are good, but not impossible to beat. We can win both. We can also lose both.

Last season Purdue learned a lot in a close season opening loss. Against Louisville it also had opportunities and missed them. Later we learned from those missed chances and cashed in on them. It is time to do the same.