Two trains rolled into West Lafayette Saturday afternoon, both of which were on the track to win the Big Ten West division and hoping to derail the others’ hopes of an undefeated season. On Track 1, the Purdue Boilermakers, who looked to dethrone their opponent from the top of the division and show their relevance in the west for the first time in 20 years. On Track 2? The Northwestern Football Hype Train, led by head conductor Pat Fitzgerald, looking to glide all the way back to Pasadena for the first time in 25 years.
In the end, it was the Hype Train that got the green signal, and ran through Purdue like the Express Metra beaming for Kenosha. Okay fine, enough train puns.
The No. 19 ’Cats (4-0) beat Purdue (2-1) 27-20 Saturday night in a game that showed just how deep the ’Cats roster runs. The ’Cats were led by graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who threw for 212 yards and three touchdowns, and senior wideout Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who caught all three touchdowns and gained a career-high 86 yards as well, leading all Northwestern players in yardage. The scores were also Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s first since 2017, when he caught one touchdown in his redshirt season against Wisconsin.
“You want to talk about a guy who's been relentless in his work ethic,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “When Peyton made the decision to come here, he and RCB were in constant communication. That's what older leaders do, and I'm just so proud of him; I'm not surprised though, he's put the work in and I think his play tonight speaks for itself.”
Also starring for the ’Cats was sophomore defensive lineman Eku Leota, who notched two sacks and a key forced fumble for Northwestern, and senior kicker Charlie Kuhbander, who booted 42-yard and 46-yard field goals, the latter being a career high.
Purdue was led in their efforts by junior quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who went a whopping 28-for-51 while throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns, and junior running back Zander Horwath, who picked up 121 total yards and 100 receiving yards. Big Ten-leading wide receiver David Bell also shined, picking up 78 yards in the loss; junior Greg Newsome, who covered Bell for most of the game, spoke afterwards about covering him:
“I love competing,” Newsome said. “Just knowing he's a good receiver, statistically, you can tell he's a great receiver. It was a competition, I knew I'd be following him the whole game, so I was just ready.”
Purdue was also without star wideout Rondale Moore, who hasn’t played a game since announcing he would be opting back in to play for the Boilermakers.
Unlike their previous matchups against Iowa and Nebraska, Northwestern controlled this game from the start. After taking the opening kickoff, the ’Cats marched 75 yards down the field, including an aggressive play call on a 4th-and-1 that drew the Boilermakers offside, and Ramsey found Chiaokhiao-Bowman inside the red zone for the first score of the game, making it 7-0 ’Cats. After the two teams traded four short drives, including three three-and-outs, Purdue went on a long drive of their own and elected to kick, making the score 7-3 after one quarter.
The teams continued to trade blows in the second, as howling rain blew across the stadium, leading to a slippery turf that made running games almost inaccessible. Kuhbander nailed a 46-yarder to make it 10-3 ’Cats, but Purdue struck back with an aggressive playcall of their own: on 4th-and-1, O’Connell flipped it to Horwath on a short play, who then ran 40 yards all the way to the endzone.
The ’Cats, however, responded immediately with a key drive led by Ramsey and Chiaokhiao-Bowman; after an Anderson fumble landed them at 2nd-and-18, Chiaokhiao-Bowman picked up the first with key throws from Ramsey, and five plays later, scored his second touchdown of the night on a long 18-yard play. At the end of the second, the ’Cats led 17-10.
“I think keeping the guys rolling on the sideline, making sure that our confidence is high. showing those guys that we're able to move the ball even when our run game isn't rolling,” Ramsey said. “I don't think the leadership has anything to do with throwing touchdowns, I think it's communication on the sidelines, communication on the field, and then just kind of staying calm and composed when we're out there.”
From there, the game became a grit-and-grind approach with the defenses holding each other still. After trading short drives, Eku Leota broke through and took down O’Connell, forcing a fumble and allowing senior linebacker Paddy Fisher to run it back 22 yards. The play set the offense up nicely, and Chiaokhiao-Bowman recorded his third score of the night on a five-yard play from Ramsey. Purdue attempted to storm back, with a few nice plays from Bell and Howarth, but the defense held, and Northwestern reached 4-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996.
With the win under their belts, the ’Cats now look to take on their toughest challenge yet: Wisconsin (2-0). Although the Badgers had missed two games due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program, the team is still a formidable foe for the ’Cats, being currently ranked tenth in the AP Poll after smothering Michigan 49-11 Saturday night. But as always, Fitzgerald says the team will prepare for Wisconsin just like any other:
“It's a one game season, right?” Fitzgerald said on the matchup. “We're going to get ready for an outstanding football team next week … I think our guys ... they put in so much work to get to this point. Just no reason to stop now. Just keep the pedal down and keep grinding.”
Northwestern and Wisconsin will play on Saturday at 2:30, with the game being broadcast on ABC. If Wisconsin wins, they’ll take sole control of the Big Ten West title. If Northwestern wins, they’ll improve to 5-0 and almost completely lock up a spot in Indianapolis in December.
Buckle up, and get your tickets out; the hype train’s coming round the bend.