The Boilermakers of Purdue University didn’t show any signs of intimidation when the team started a redshirt freshman quarterback in its Big Ten opening game against the Northwestern Wildcats on Oct. 9.
Under the bright lights at Ryan Field, the Boilermakers torched the Wildcats for 255 rushing yards, as Purdue capitalized on special team miscues by Northwestern for a 20-17 victory in front of 33, 847 attendees. The Wildcats failed in their bid to start their season at 6-0 for the first time since 1962.
After losing its opening game starting quarterback Robert Marve for the season due to a torn ACL, Purdue relied on Rob Henry to give the team a boost against a run defense that appeared invincible.
Henry ran for 140 yards on the ground as Purdue seemed intent on not giving away turnovers with an unproven quarterback behind center.
“They outplayed us,” Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa said after the game. “They wanted it more. [We] can’t keep beating ourselves.”
The Wildcats had chances to break the game open, but failed to convert more than 50 percent of its third downs. Northwestern converted only eight of 18 third-down plays.
Punt returner Jeremy Bates fumbled a punt midway through the second quarter that led to a Boilermakers field goal by Carson Wiggs.
Wildcats place-kicker Stefan Demos missed two field goals, including one in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game. Before Demos missed a 45-yard field goal attempt with 58 seconds remaining, the Boilermakers scored the go-ahead touchdown on a seven-yard run by Dan Dierking after Demos’ earlier attempt in the fourth quarter was blocked.
Fitzgerald said he was disappointed with the loss but not frustrated. He also reinstated his firm belief in his special teams when asked if changes were going to be made before their Oct. 23 matchup against Michigan State University.
“Is it disappointing? Yeah, but I trust those guys and they’ll be right back out there against Michigan State,” Fitzgerald said.
The Boilermakers played conservatively throughout the game as Henry only completed six of 18 passes for an insignificant 47 yards. On the ground, Purdue used eight different players to keep the Wildcats’ defense on its toes.
There were two explosive gains on the ground for Purdue as Henry rushed for 67 yards on a quarterback scramble through the middle of Northwestern’s defense in the first quarter. He added to the run with a one-yard touchdown score.
Senior running back Keith Carlos rushed for a domineering 51-yard gain in the third quarter which led to a Boilermakers field goal.
Fitzgerald said the team knew Purdue would come off the bus running the ball and knew Henry would be running the majority of the time.
“We anticipated having to adjust on defense,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought for the most part, we did a pretty good job of it … you’ve got to give them a ton of credit.”
The coach said outside of the two big gains for Purdue, the defense held up and said the team’s bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.
Outside linebacker Quentin Davie said given Purdue’s bye week before the game, the defense knew what to expect, but the result proved otherwise.
“We knew they were going to change stuff up,” Davie said. “What we expected they would change, [they did]. We just need to do our jobs [in our next game].”
For Persa, the game was a wasted effort as he continues to improve in the passing game. Persa threw for 305 yards against the Boilermakers,but was sacked five times.
With the Wildcats failing to convert on third down for most of the game and missing two field goals, Persa acknowledged this team shouldn’t settle for three points.
“We’ve got to score points,” Persa said. “We can’t keep kicking field goals.”
The only two touchdowns for the Wildcats were a two-yard run by Jacob Schmidt in the first quarter and a five-yard run by Persa in the third.
Fitzgerald said the team wouldn’t be pointing any fingers at the offense, defense or special teams because they would be doing that all night. Persa noted the offense should be aware of when the special teams should be bailed out when mistakes happen.
Before Demos failed field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had the chance to score when Jacob Schmidt ran for a 22-yard gain, which would have put Northwestern on Purdue’s five yard line, but the play was negated because of a holding penalty.
“It’s part of the game,” Persa said. “[The special teams] pick us up when we make mistakes. We got to pick them up when they make mistakes.”
With the Wildcats facing a tough Michigan State team on Oct. 23, Persa said the team must be ready to play.
“They’re a great team, and if we don’t come prepared to play, they’ll run us off the field,” Persa said.
Davie said he reminded the team to remember the feeling they had after this game.
After starting 5-0 and losing a game to Purdue, Fitzgerald said the Wildcats have to keep up the same mentality as they had while winning.
“We’re going to have to respond the same way [we do] when we have success,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a terrible taste in [our] mouth right now. It’s going to be critical to see how we come back out with our attitude.”