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Northwestern pleased to grind out win vs. pesky Purdue

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson runs against Purdue on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston. | David Banks/Getty Images

The performance wasn’t nearly as pretty as this glorious autumn Saturday.

But on a day when the sun was shining and the offense wasn’t, No. 18 Northwestern did it what it needed to do, turning back pesky Purdue 21-14.

‘‘I’m never going to apologize for [a win],’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘It’s hard to win Big Ten games. Purdue is improved. We knew it was going to be a battle. We’ll enjoy it and we’ll move on.’’

Since being swatted by No. 14 Michigan and No. 5 Iowa by a combined 78-10, No. 18 NU hasn’t set the world on fire. But has won its last three games by a combined 11 points.

‘‘They’re two pretty darned good football teams,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘You go into the locker room after games like that frustrated. But you know you’ve got a good team. And you have to get it out of the guys.’’

Fitzgerald and his staff have done that. With three games to play, the Cats (8-2, 4-2) quietly have given themselves a shot at the first 11-win season in school history. NU has posted 10 wins twice, in 1995 and 2012.

Playing at Wisconsin and facing Illinois in Soldier Field won’t be easy. Nor will the quality bowl opponent NU is line to face.

But winning ugly is not necessarily a bad trend.

‘‘Our confidence is in a great place,’’ said safety Traveon Henry, one of 24 NU seniors who went out on a winning note at sun-drenched Ryan Field. ‘‘We’re confident in our preparation. We have guys that are buying into what we have going on. It’s just trusting each other. That’s where the confidence comes from.’’

On this Senior Day, when Purdue (2-8, 1-6) won the turnover battle 3-1, the Cats’ defense needed to dig deep. And that’s what it did. The Boilers got no points from their three turnovers.

Meanwhile, NU marched its takeaway 41 yards for a TD, triggered by a 26-yard endaround from wideout Miles Shuler.

‘‘When you lose the turnover ratio the way we did, it’s pretty rare to win a game,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We use the analogy of being a firemen. When the bells rings, when there’s a fire out on the field, you’re a fireman. It’s time to go put the fire out. Our defense did that 100 percent today. That was the difference in the game.’’

To make matters more precarious, NU also went through a fire drill on offense. Senior backup Zack Oliver threw an interception after replacing freshman starter Clayton Thorson, who had been pulled after throwing an interception.

And so, Fitz went back to Thorson early in the fourth quarter. Thorson responded by reeling off back-to-back 16-yard runs to set up the game-winning TD.

‘‘We wanted to take [Thorson] out, let him take a breather,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘When you have a rookie quarterback, even a veteran, when you take him out, it gives him a chance to exhale.’’

The Oliver interception meant Thorson got another turn.

‘‘I just felt we wanted to go back to what we were doing,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Clayton had settled down. He felt good.’’

Thorson was happy to help the seniors, who have kept this team moving forward, enjoy a victory in their final home game.

‘‘That was really important,’’ Thorson said. ‘‘We have a big senior class. They’ve all worked their tails off and set the foundation for this year. To start 8-2 and hopefully finish even better, they’ve been huge for us this entire year.’’

And it’s not over.