By Matt Baker
The Daily Northwestern
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Giving up 41 points and 287 rushing yards is rarely a sign of a good defensive performance.
But Northwestern’s defense came through against Michigan State on Saturday with key stops in the fourth quarter and overtime to clinch NU’s first Big Ten victory of the season.
“That’s why it’s a great program win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t a Picasso out there today. It was not a thing of beauty. … Maybe against Duke we didn’t make those plays at the end of the game. Against Michigan, same thing. And now we have.”
Michigan State entered Saturday as the third-best rushing offense in the Big Ten and showed it early against the Wildcats. Junior running back Javon Ringer racked up 185 yards on just 12 carries and scored three touchdowns – including an 80-yarder to tie the game at 34.
Although the Cats gave up another touchdown on a 19-yard pass from quarterback Brian Hoyer to wide-open tight end Eric Andino, they held the Spartans scoreless over the next four possessions and forced Hoyer into four straight incompletions in overtime.
The Spartans had scored on six of their previous 10 drives.
“My mindset was that we’re not going to lose,” said linebacker Malcolm Arrington, who finished with a team-high nine tackles. “And that’s the way everybody played.”
GOOD, BAD SPECIAL TEAMS
After making his first 19 kicks of the year, junior placekicker Amado Villarreal struggled Saturday.
He missed the second extra point he attempted against the Spartans and missed a 36-yard field goal wide left at the end of regulation. NU turned the ball over with a chance to kick the go-ahead field goal earlier in the fourth quarter when a low snap forced holder Kyle Daley to roll out and try to throw for a first down.
Despite those low points, the Cats’ special teams also shined Saturday. Defensive end Corey Wootton blocked the Spartans’ first extra point, and Arrington blocked a punt in the fourth quarter to give NU the ball deep in Michigan State territory.
“We had been practicing that for weeks,” Arrington said. “Coach had been getting at us about special teams, taught us that we needed to make a big play, and so we made one.”
NU didn’t seem to miss junior running back Tyrell Sutton, who did not travel with the team. Sutton has missed the last four games with a high ankle injury and is listed as week-to-week.
In his absence, junior running back Omar Conteh, making his third consecutive start, had 149 total yards against the Spartans. Besides racking up 70 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, Conteh was the team’s third-leading receiver with five catches for 79 yards.
But he saved his best play for last, catching a sidearm pass from a scrambling quarterback C.J. Bacher in overtime to score the eventual winning touchdown.
INCHES TO GO
Bacher wasn’t the only NU player to set a career high Saturday. Wide receivers Eric Peterman and Rasheed Ward set personal best marks with nine and eight receptions, while Peterman (141) and Jeff Yarbrough (104) set career highs in receiving yards. … NU has beaten Michigan State in four of their last six meetings and three of the last four games at Spartan Stadium.
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