Receiver Riley Lees takes a pass upfield. The senior caught his first touchdown of the season for the 'Cats. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

This one hurts.

After weeks of poor offensive performances, Northwestern (1-8, 0-7 B1G) rebounded for three touchdowns in a 24-22 last-second loss to Purdue (4-6, 3-4 B1G) on Saturday. The loss marked their seventh-straight in conference despite the ‘Cats holding a lead with less than a minute remaining. Purdue kicker J.D. Dellinger hit a 39-yard field goal with mere seconds left to give Purdue their second conference win a row in a game started by two third-string quarterbacks and featuring solid play from underclassmen all around.  

Northwestern’s first quarter, sans hyperbole, may have been the best football they played all season. Two plays into the ‘Cats’ first drive, Kyrie McGowan took an inside handoff 79 yards to the house, blowing past Purdue’s defense for Northwestern’s first touchdown since their loss to Nebraska in early October. McGowan torched Purdue to the tune of 165 total yards and a score, leading all players in that category.

On Purdue’s next series, Cam Ruiz picked off Boilermaker QB Aidan O’Connell for Northwestern’s first interception since against Wisconsin, and Aidan Smith marched the ‘Cats down the field, culminating in a 16-yard touchdown grab by Jace James. Smith led Northwestern with a confidence unseen in the ‘Cats’ previous tilts, constantly finding open receivers and making solid reads.

Suffice to say, this offensive production has been conspicuously absent for the past few weeks. People took notice.

Purdue responded in the second quarter with a 12-yard run by King Dorue, but Northwestern held on to take a lead into halftime. The second quarter brought a regression to the mean on offense, but Joe Gaziano forced O’Connell into intentional grounding in the end zone with roughly one minute left for a safety. O’Connell relied on star freshman David Bell for most of the Boilermakers’ offensive output — and Ruiz certainly had his hands full in the first half while marking the speedy playmaker —   but for the most part, Northwestern contained Purdue’s attack.

Northwestern's third quarter mirrored the play that many fans were probably expecting to see when they walked into Ryan Field this morning. Purdue took the lead on two beautiful touchdown throws from O’Connell, the first to Bell in the corner of the end zone and the second to Amad Anderson Jr. on a corner fade route. Smith reverted to his play the previous four weeks, the running game could not get going, and Purdue’s freshmen torched Northwestern’s secondary.

Impressively enough, with all the momentum directing away from Northwestern, the ‘Cats offense sprung to life during the fourth quarter. After a huge completion to a wide-open Berkeley Holman, Smith threw a dart to Riley Lees for the senior’s first touchdown of the year to take a 22-21 lead.

Alas, good things do not last in Evanston. Northwestern drove down the field with just minutes remaining, desperate for insurance points before Purdue could take one last crack at the NU defense. A holding penalty on Rashawn Slater pushed the ‘Cats nearly of field goal range, and  Charlie Kuhbander missed a 32-yard field goal off the upright. O’Connell proceeded to drive the Boilermakers down the field, aided by two critical pass interference calls against AJ Hampton and Ruiz, the latter on a fourth down from the Northwestern 45. Purdue kicker J.D. Dellinger hit a 39-yard field goal with a handful of seconds left to win the game for the Boilermakers, 24-22.

Credit goes to Northwestern for battling back while down, and for keeping a resurgent, athletic Purdue squad at bay for the majority of the game. That said, in a rarity for any other Pat Fitzgerald-coached team, the propensity for penalties decided the contest. Northwestern was called for nine penalties for 96 yards, none bigger than Ruiz’ pass interference on the final drive of the game.

“[That was] probably the best response I've seen from our team all year,” Fitzgerald said. “[In the last four minutes of the game the difference was discipline.”

For a squad that has achieved renown for its’ fair play, the sheer number of penalties has definitely factored into the drop-off in record Northwestern has seen this season. With that said, the ‘Cats had the talent to compete, but execution was simply lacking during crunch time. Coach Fitzgerald can build off of an improved performance under Smith, but that may be it as far as positives go. Nine games in, and the squad is still searching for its first conference win of the season.

Northwestern returns against UMass next Saturday, Nov. 16th, at Ryan Field.