Northwestern inches closer to bowl eligibility thanks to third road win

Nov 12, 2016; West Lafayette, IN, USA;  Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) at Purdue Boilermakers defensive end Evan Panfil (95) in the first half at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Even when Northwestern plays at home, there really isn’t much of an advantage.

Ryan Field has the lowest seating capacity in the B1G, holding just over 47,000 fans. It’s a tough stadium to fill, and even when it is full, there’s typically entire sections devoted to fans of the visiting team. So even when the Wildcats have the luxury of playing a big game in Evanston, it’s really like playing a road game, or a neutral site contest at best.

That might be why playing outside of Evanston doesn’t seem to intimidate Pat Fitzgerald and company.

Northwestern improved to 5-5 on the year after a 45-17 win over Purdue in West Lafayette on Saturday. While the overall record is nothing more than an average mark for a team that had higher expectations, the impressive factor here is that the win over the Boilermakers boosted the Wildcats’ road record to 3-1.

Victories over Iowa, Michigan State and now Purdue away from Ryan Field have kept Northwestern fighting for bowl eligibility despite a 1-3 start to the season – all four of those games were at home, by the way.

What’s the secret?

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Some of the success away from Evanston has come from some fortunate scheduling. Iowa and Michigan State are in the midst of their most disappointing seasons in awhile and Purdue is stull cemented in the basement of the conference. But the quality of opponent shouldn’t overshadow the accomplishment of a 3-1 record. After all, this is still the B1G and road wins aren’t easy to come by.

Northwestern’s offense has gelled better on the road, thanks in large part to big outings from Justin Jackson. In the three road wins, Jackson has posted his highest rushing totals of the season. He ran for 171 yards against Iowa and followed it up with a 188-yard performance the next week against Michigan State. Against Purdue, the junior running back toted the ball 22 times for 127 yards and a pair of TDs.

Clayton Thorson has been better, too. On the road, the sophomore quarterback has completed 63 percent of his passes and has 10 TD passes with four interceptions. At home, he’s competing passes at a 54 percent clip.

For whatever reason, big plays have seem to come easier. Northwestern has been able to silence opposing crowds and make fans a non-factor in three-fourths of the games they’ve played away from Ryan Field.

Jackson gave Northwestern a 31-24 lead in the 3rd quarter against Iowa after ripping off this big run at Kinnick Stadium:

A week later, Thorson connected with Flynn Nagel for a long touchdown pass to quite the crowd at Spartans Stadium:

The result? The Wildcats scored 38, 54 and 45 in the three wins respectively, the three highest offensive outputs of the year.

Scoring that much certainly makes it easier to win on the road.

And what about the one loss on the road?

The Wildcats took Ohio State to the wire in Columbus a few weeks ago, dropping a close contest 24-20. But even in a loss, Northwestern performed much better than anyone could’ve expected, especially against a team vying for a B1G title and a bid in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.

Northwestern couldn’t have played much better.

Saturday was another strong showing for Fitzgerald’s “road warriors,” particularly in the second half. Northwestern scored 31 of its 45 points in the final two quarters. They forced four turnovers, three of them coming in the second half. When it was all said and done, the Wildcats posted a season-high 605 yards of offense as they clawed within a single win of bowl eligibility for back-to-back years.

Next week, the Wildcats finish their road schedule against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium

It would only be fitting if Northwestern clinched bowl eligibility by posting its fourth road victory of the year.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

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