WEST LAFAYETTE — Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell began his collegiate career as a walk-on buried on the depth chart.
He could end it by leading the Boilermakers to their first Big Ten championship game.
The sixth-year quarterback threw two more touchdown passes in his last home game on Saturday and Purdue’s defense forced three second-half turnovers to give the Boilermakers a 17-9 win over Northwestern that kept their West Division title hopes intact held.
“They have a lot to play, people are talking about postseason stuff and it’s not like we’re blind to it,” O’Connell said when asked what’s at stake next week. “It’s up to us to make sure we’re grounded and focused on the task at hand.”
Purdue (7-4, 5-3) wants to keep it simple. A win next week at rival Indiana, coupled with a loss in Iowa, sends the Boilermakers to Indianapolis for championship weekend.
Coach Jeff Brohm knows the challenge will be even greater when they play in the same cold, stormy conditions that made the field so slippery on Saturday. But the Boilermakers have proven they can adapt.
O’Connell was 16 of 25 with 159 yards and found his childhood friend Charlie Jones six times for 46 yards and a hit. The defense allowed their lowest score in league play and Jack Sullivan’s late fourth sack near midfield sealed the win.
Northwestern (1-10, 1-7) has gone 10 straight losses since an opening-day win over Nebraska in Ireland, this time in quarterback Cole Freeman’s starting debut as a sophomore. He was 9 of 20 for 78 yards and one interception while losing a fumble.
“He gave everything he had and that came as no surprise to anyone here. He’s been like that since he walked into the dressing room,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We just had to play a few more games. Purdue is in the driving seat of the Big Ten West for a reason.”
Purdue never really gave the Wildcats a chance after O’Connell’s throw across the field to Jones, who made an inside cut to avoid a defender and jogged into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
O’Connell’s 3-yard TD pass to Payne Durham made it 14-3 at halftime and Northwestern cut the deficit to 14-9 when Evan Hull hit on a 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Hull had 22 carries for 105 yards.
Purdue has won consecutive years for the first time since 1997-98 and a consecutive seven-win season for the first time since 2006-07.
“A win is a win,” Durham said. “It might not have been the prettiest, but it counts as a W in our column.”
THE TAKE AWAY
Northwestern: With top two quarterbacks Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski out injured, not much has changed at Freeman. The offense was still fighting mightily for points, even though the Wildcats avoided their sixth double-digit loss this season.
Purdue: The Boilermakers did what they needed to do by Saturday — and not much more. They held off the last-placed West Division team despite losing their top runner Devin Mockobee in the game’s opening series and their starting center Gus Hartwig, perhaps for the season. Brohm said Hartwig will be “out for quite a while”.
TAKE IT BACK
Seeing open field early in the third quarter after a win over Freeman, Jalen Graham thought he had Purdue’s third defensive touchdown of the season.
Instead, the fourth-year linebacker began circling the Wildcats’ 20-yard line and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that took the touchdown off the board. Four games later, the Wind briefly knocked out Fineran’s 47-yard field goal attempt to keep the score at 14-3.
“Of course we can’t allow that,” said Brohm.
Sixth-year quarterback Austin Burton made a cameo appearance for Purdue, running for 5 yards in a notable game for the late Ron Burton’s family.
Burton’s grandfather, Ron, was a Northwestern All-American running back and inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame; Burton’s father Steve played quarterback at Northwestern from 1982 to 1984; his mother, Ginni, was an All-American swimmer for the Wildcats; and his sister Veronica was also a volleyball star there.
Northwestern: Ends next Saturday against Illinois State rivals.
Purdue: Will play for the Old Oaken bucket — and a division title — in Indiana next Saturday.