WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – On a day when everything seemed to be going right for Northern Illinois, even one of its biggest perceived liabilities became a positive.
The much-maligned Huskie defense went out against Purdue and forced five turnovers, a quarterback change and a premature emptying of Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday afternoon en route to a 55-24 thrashing of the Boilermakers.
The stats don’t immediately show how solid the defense’s performance was. After all, Purdue outgained NIU, 524-402, and this was from a Huskie offense that scored the most points ever against the Boilermakers at Ross-Ade.
The Huskies may not have shut Purdue down, but they took advantage of any chances they had to make a big play.
“I was pleased with our defense, the way they came and got around that football,” NIU coach Rod Carey said.
“Yeah, we gave up some plays there, but we were opportunistic.”
Purdue was given chance after chance to get back in the game, but the Huskies continued to bail themselves out. Boilermaker quarterback Rob Henry fumbled early and was intercepted twice by safety Dechane Durante in the first half. Both picks came deep in NIU territory when Purdue was threatening to cut into the lead.
But it wasn’t just on defense where NIU was optimistic. After giving up a field goal right before the half, Tommylee Lewis took the opening kickoff of the third quarter 99 yards for the score and made sure that the momentum stayed with the Huskies.
“It definitely set the tone, but all the credit goes to the ten guys blocking,” Lewis said. “I just had to make one cut and go, but it was definitely important to give us a spark coming out of the half.”
Even after Purdue made the switch to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling, the turnovers didn’t stop. Safety Jimmie Ward picked him off and went 62 yards for the score, and safety Dominique Ware added yet another interception for good measure late in the fourth quarter.
Ward played without a cast on his left hand for the first time this season, but his play looked just about the same.
“It felt good,” he said. “Coach was emphasizing doing better and said, ‘You have to do great. You don’t have the cast anymore, so go out there and make plays.”
As Ward did, so did the rest of the defense and special teams. They proved that stats can be very misleading as Purdue had more yards and more time of possession, but NIU took advantage of opportunities when it mattered most.
With a 4-0 record heading into Mid-American Conference play, Carey said much of the credit must go to the defense and special teams.
“The most important part of the game is the kicking game and the turnovers,” Carey said. “When we had an opportunity, we put the game away.”