WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue fans will call it a flop, a blown call, a crime against humanity.
The fact is, it was nothing less than a blatant screw-up by Boilermakers defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal. He was penalized for throwing Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin to the ground well after the whistle on a third-down play with 2:42 left in the fourth quarter. Instead of getting the ball back, Purdue watched the Wildcats run the clock out for a 31-27 season-opening victory.
Boilers coach Jeff Brohm exploded on game officials as the Ross-Ade Stadium crowd rang out with angry boos. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald had a slightly more reasonable reaction.
“I saw the flag go up,” he said. “I won’t say what I said into the headphones, but it was exciting.”
It wasn’t the most artful “W” for the Wildcats, but it was their ninth straight (carrying over from last season) and their eighth in a row against a Big Ten opponent. Both streaks are tied for the program’s longest since the Rose Bowl season of 1995.
It also was their fifth straight victory over Purdue, a Big Ten West rival considered to be on the rise.
“Great to win,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll take it — 1-0.”
It probably would’ve gone the other way if not for Larkin’s 143 yards and two touchdowns rushing. It surely would’ve been a different result if not for three first-half interceptions of Boilers quarterback Elijah Sindelar — by J.R. Pace, Nate Hall and Montre Hartage — and the defense’s stiffening throughout the second half, when it allowed only 10 points.
But the main takeaway everyone will have after this one is that Clayton Thorson got back on the field and — especially in the early going — looked like the one guy this team can’t meet its goals without.
Only eight months after tearing his right ACL in the Music City Bowl, Thorson led touchdown drives on the Wildcats’ first two possessions and finished 16-of-26 for 172 yards through the air.
Operating according to the hush-hush plan Fitzgerald and his staff brought into the game, junior backup T.J. Green — son of former NFL quarterback Trent Green — played two series in the first quarter and at least one in each quarter after that. But Thorson led the drives that produced 28 of the team’s 31 points, with all of NU’s scoring taking place in the first half.
It was Thorson’s 40th career start, most in the nation until Washington’s Jake Browning ties him on Saturday. His best throw: a dart to wideout Ramaud Chiaokhio-Bowman at the 1-yard line, a play on which he first stepped up in the pocket, then rolled right — looking like the picture of health.
Which he isn’t — not yet. This will take a while. That was evident when he ran out of bounds a yard shy of the first-down marker on a third-down play, and when he slid rather than take on a single defender in open space on a keeper.
In his head, Fitzgerald was yelling for his star quarterback to do those very things. The time to throw caution to the wind will come.