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Thorson guides No. 25 Northwestern by Purdue
EVANSTON, Ill. — A week after becoming the first team in FBS history to win three consecutive overtime games with a 31-24 win at Nebraska, No. 25 Northwestern has another first to celebrate.
Clayton Thorson completed 26 of 46 passes for 296 yards and accounted for two touchdowns, helping the Wildcats defeat Purdue 23-13 Saturday at Ryan Field.
It was the first November night game in either school’s history.
“I got to watch some football today,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked of the 6 p.m. kickoff. “I want to thank our facilities crew too. I thought the field was awesome based on the weather we’ve gotten over the past 36 hours. ... I think it was a pretty darn good defensive battle.”
Elijah Sindelar was 37 of 60 for 376 yards, two touchdowns and an interception as Purdue outgained Northwestern, amassing 438 yards to the Wildcats’ 390.
Both teams were stagnant out of the gate, combining for five first downs and 91 total yards in a scoreless first quarter.
“I would’ve liked to have seen him make a few better decisions in the first half and be a little more accurate,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said of Sindelar. “He missed high on some throws, and that’s something he’s done quite a bit, so we’ve got to help him get that fixed. But he did play hard, and he did compete.”
Northwestern (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten) won its fifth straight and appeared to seize momentum when wide receiver Riley Lees returned a punt 78 yards for an electrifying touchdown, but a spot foul unsportsmanlike conduct penalty negated the score and pushed the Wildcats back near midfield.
Northwestern eventually gained the yardage back, marching 46 yards in five plays to take a 7-0 lead with 9:45 remaining in the first half on a four-yard touchdown run by Thorson.
“Any time you win five in a row, and you’re in conference play, that’s not an easy feat, no matter what level of football you’re at,” Fitzgerald said. “I think our guys have a lot of confidence right now. I think they see the return on their investment, and I don’t think they’re going to stop that type of work ethic.”
Purdue (4-6, 2-5) answered with seemingly its best drive of the half — 10 plays for 50 yards elapsing 2:56 — but failed to convert it into points as Spencer Evans missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.
The next drive looked even more promising as the Boilermakers entered the red zone for the first time via a six play, 67-yard drive, which included a 24-yard completion from punter Joe Schopper to long snapper Ben Makowski on a fake punt attempt on fourth-and-7. Six plays later, the Boilermakers again elected to go for it on fourth down, but were denied on a run up the gut on fourth-and-1 at Northwestern’s 4-yard line.
The Wildcats capitalized on the momentum of their defensive stand, driving 96 yards in 1:33 to take a 14-0 halftime lead following an 11-yard touchdown pass from Thorson to Bennett Skowronek with 16 seconds left in the first half.
“It was a momentum changer for sure,” Brohm said of the failed fourth down conversion. “We went for it, it didn’t work, and then they capitalized. You’ve got to be able to make those types of plays in these games, or you’re not going to win. It cost us.”
Skowronek finished with a team-best seven catches for 117 yards in addition to the score.
“Bennett’s been a guy who has been really consistent,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s run good routes. He’s blocked physically out on the perimeter, and I think he’s been really locked in during the week. I think it’s a byproduct of his preparation.”
Charlie Kuhbander’s three second-half field goals gave Northwestern some breathing room while it milked the clock as Purdue attempted to whittle away at the deficit.
Sindelar’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Jarrett Burgess got the Boilermakers on the board with 2:26 remaining in the third quarter. A 12-yard strike to Anthony Mahoungou gave Purdue a chance to make it a one score game with 5:32 remaining, but it failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion attempt.
Both teams struggled to run the ball, particularly early in the game. DJ Knox led Purdue with six carries for 22 yards, and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson was held to just 46 yards on 25 carries.
The Wildcats rushed 38 times for 94 yards, while Purdue managed only 40 yards on 22 attempts.
NOTES: Purdue backup QB Jared Sparks celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday. Sparks, who spends the majority of his snaps at wide receiver in wildcat and other trick formations, led the Boilermakers in catches (11) and receiving yards (130). ... Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson’s second-quarter touchdown run was his eighth this season and the 18th of his career, which ties for third in school history for rushing scores by a quarterback. Thorson also moved to third all-time on the school’s career yardage list (7,811) and completion list (666). ... Northwestern CB Montre Hartage was flagged for targeting on Purdue’s fake punt conversion and ejected. Hartage had three tackles prior to the penalty.