WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — After losing back-to-back home games to Western Michigan and to Illinois State to begin the 2016 season, Northwestern knew it would be pressed to qualify for a bowl game.
But after Saturday’s 45-17 victory at Purdue, the Wildcats (5-5, 4-3 Big Ten) are within one victory of bowl eligibility, having carved their path by posting a 3-1 record in conference road games.
In addition to Purdue, they also have won at Iowa and at Michigan State.
Clayton Thorson passed for a career-best 352 yards and three touchdowns, and Northwestern scored 31 second-half points on its way to an easy victory at Purdue (3-7, 1-6), which has lost five in a row by an average margin of 21.2 points.
Thorson, who also ran for a touchdown, completed 23 of 36 passes, including five for 92 yards and two touchdowns to wide receiver Austin Carr, who tied the school single-season record with 12 TD receptions.
"Every time we came out in the second half, we were just licking our chops to get another good drive going," Carr said. "We were clicking on all cylinders. And of course, a bowl is a huge motivator. We viewed these last three games as a three-game playoff."
Austin Jackson rushed 22 times for 127 yards and a touchdown, and John Moten IV had 16 carries for 119 yards, marking the first time since Sept. 14, 2013 against Western Michigan that two Northwestern backs rushed for more than 100 yards in the same game.
"The receivers were getting open, but the offensive line was playing really well," Thorson said. "There were only one or two times that I was rushed to even make a throw."
Thorson’s third touchdown pass — a 42-yarder to Garrett Dickerson on the first play after an interception by linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. — gave Northwestern a 28-10 lead with 11:13 remaining in the third quarter. The Wildcats steadily pulled away.
Finishing with 605 yards of offense, Northwestern outscored Purdue 31-7 during the final 30 minutes.
"We didn’t start the way we wanted, obviously, but you need to credit Purdue for that," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We knew we would get a fast start from them. We talked about the first series of the second half being really important. Obviously, depth is important, especially when you see a couple of their defensive starters out."
Northwestern spotted Purdue a 10-0, first-quarter lead, then scored the opening half’s final 14 points to lead 14-10 through 30 minutes. Purdue lost its fifth in a row.
The Wildcats extended their lead to 21-10 on Justin Jackson’s 14-yard touchdown run, capping a seven-play, 71-yard drive.
"We certainly are not happy with the second half result," Purdue interim coach Gerad Parker said. "This isn’t what the Purdue football program should be about, especially in our home stadium."
Purdue quarterback David Blough completed 21 of 36 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted three times, setting up 17 Northwestern points.
"I simply missed my spot on the first interception," Blough said. "That’s the frustrating part, and they capitalized. It hurts. All three of my turnovers led to points. We have not executed well, and it seems to happen at the same point in games. We have been in positions to have success in the second half, and we have not done it."
Northwestern: Needing two victories in their final three games to become bowl eligible, the Wildcats scored touchdowns on each of their first four second-half drives and pulled away from the struggling Boilermakers. Northwestern gained 557 yards during the first three quarters.
Purdue: Playing without their two best defenders – Jake Replogle (concussion) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (leg) – the Boilermakers’ defense was no match for Northwestern’s balanced offense and fell to 0-15 in November games during the four most recent seasons.
Northwestern: The Wildcats travel to Minnesota on Nov. 19 for their final Big Ten road game.
Purdue: The Boilermakers will play host to No. 7 Wisconsin on Nov. 19 in their final Big Ten home game.