EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Northwestern fans and students ran onto the field Saturday afternoon to celebrate a victory. Such a home finale didn’t seem likely for the Wildcats a few months ago.
Cam Porter scored a pair of rushing touchdowns to help Northwestern become bowl-eligible with a 23-15 win over visiting Purdue.
After starting the season under the cloud of a hazing scandal and subsequent firing of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) are writing an unlikely but happy ending.
“It’s been an incredible week,” Northwestern coach David Braun said. “We accomplished something special today.”
Braun, made interim head coach this summer after Fitzgerald’s dismissal, got his first win as head coach. The school promoted him Thursday.
Ben Bryant (13-of-24 passing, 230 yards) hit Cam Johnson in stride for a 52-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to retake the momentum after Purdue (3-8, 2-6) scored to cut the lead to 9-6.
“It’s a really good feeling,” Bryant said. “All the things we’ve been through and how far we’ve come; it’s really something to be proud of.”
Porter (17 carries, 95 yards) gave Northwestern the lead for good with a 7-yard touchdown on its first possession and added a 34-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter.
The Boilermakers scratched starting quarterback Hudson Card hours before kickoff and rarely caught a break against a Northwestern defense that came up big when most needed. The Wildcats stopped a pair of fourth-down tries and had a pair of takeaways in the first half to lead 6-0 at intermission, then recovered a muffed punt early in the second half that led to a short field goal.
“I knew moving the ball and trying to get points was going to be difficult during the game,” first-year Purdue coach Ryan Walters said. “We got down to the 1-yard line two times, and couldn’t get in there.”
Linebacker Xander Mueller sealed the victory with an interception of Ryan Browne at the Northwestern 30 with 19 seconds left.
“It gives us a ton of confidence,” Johnson said of the defense’s first-half effort. “It allows us to play loose knowing we’re going to get the ball back quickly.”
Tyrone Tracy Jr. had 160 yards on 16 carries and scored a touchdown for Purdue, which has lost five of six.
Ryan Field, Northwestern’s football home for almost a century, might look a lot different the next time the Wildcats run out of the tunnel. The Evanston City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on the school’s proposed demolition and erection of a new stadium on the site. The university already has moved spring commencement from the stadium to the United Center on the city’s west side.
“Knowing this might be Ryan Field’s last game certainly made it special,” said Johnson, who had three catches for 88 yards.
AT LEAST IT DIDN’T SNOW
It would’ve been hard to blame fans for hitting the exits at halftime. The teams combined to go 4 for 14 on third down and each missed a field goal. Northwestern surrendered five sacks in the opening half while Purdue fumbled twice.
An expected postseason berth would be Northwestern’s first since the 2020 season, when the Wildcats defeated Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. The school would be seeking its fifth straight bowl win and Braun would be just the fifth coach to guide the Wildcats to a bowl game.
Redshirt Bennett Meredith made his first career start in place of Card but the lion’s share of snaps ended up going to fellow freshman Ryan Browne, who ended the day 12 for 16 for 104 yards and two interceptions.
Walters did not elaborate on Card’s injury after the game, only saying he hoped the malady was not serious.
Purdue: Card’s absence hurt, but the Boilermakers twice failed to convert fourth-and-1 chances deep in Northwestern territory in the opening half. Purdue had the ball for more than 19 minutes but went to intermission with nothing to show for it.
Northwestern: The Wildcats won consecutive games for the first time this season and head to in-state rival Illinois next weekend without the added pressure of needing a win to be bowl-eligible.
Purdue: Ends its season next Saturday against visiting Indiana.
Northwestern: Plays at Illinois next Saturday.
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