No ‘Sparty On’ after third quarter stumble

Robbie Levin

EAST LANSING, MICH. – Northwestern played arguably its best half of the season Saturday against Michigan State. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it was the first half. From the point on, it was a different story.

The Spartans came out of the locker room at halftime with a new energy, taking advantage of two NU turnovers and running away with a 24-14 victory.

“(It was) a tale of two halves,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “(Michigan State) capitalized on our mistakes, and that’s why we came up two possessions short.”

The Cats’ defense, which gave up early touchdowns to Minnesota and Purdue, came out flat again Saturday. The Spartans took advantage of a 47-yard kickoff return, driving 45 yards to the NU 1-yard line. But that was as far as the Spartans would get. NU stuffed quarterback Kirk Cousins on a fourth-down sneak and took over from the shadow of its own goal post.

“We came out with a bang with that fourth down stop at the goal line,” junior linebacker Nate Williams said. “The D-line was playing phenomenally in the first half, getting some big tackles-for-losses in the backfield.”

After NU’s goal-line stand, the teams exchanged six punts to close out the first quarter and open the second. NU took over at its 20-yard line after Michigan State’s third punt of the game early in the second quarter. Quarterback Mike Kafka marched the team 80 yards, all of them through the air. The senior gunslinger capped off the drive with a 15-yard strike to senior wide receiver Andrew Brewer in the middle of the end zone.

That was the only scoring either team would do in the first half. The Cats went into the locker room with a lead for the first time in three Big Ten games this year.

Not including the Spartans’ first possession of the game, NU’s defense held Michigan State to four first downs and 85 yards of offense in the first half. The first and second quarters were the Cats’ sixth and seventh shutout quarters in their past eight.

“We were getting off blocks and making plays in the backfield,” senior defensive tackle Adam Hahn said. “We just had the momentum on our side, and we kept it on our side.”But the Cats lost momentum as quickly as they won it.

Sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore fumbled on NU’s first possession of the second half, and the Spartans took advantage of the Cats’ first miscue. Michigan State drove 64 yards in three minutes, tying the game with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to wide receiver Blair White.

After an NU punt, the Cousins-White connection burned the Cats once again. With 5:13 left in the third quarter, White beat the coverage over the middle and was wide open by the time Cousins’ pass sailed into his hands. NU found itself trailing for the first time since midway through the fourth quarter at Purdue.

Overall, the Spartans lit up the Cats’ defense in the third quarter, notching 17 points on 205 yards of total offense.

“We were just kind of stagnant in the third quarter,” Williams said. “And that cost us.”NU’s struggles continued in the fourth quarter. Return man Jeravin Matthews muffed the kickoff, and the Spartans recovered at NU’s 22-yard line. One play later, running back Larry Caper scampered for the first rushing touchdown of the game, putting the Spartans ahead 24-7.

The Cats responded, driving 67 yards on their next possession for their second score of the game. This time Kafka hit senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen for a one-yard touchdown catch.

Markshausen had a big day, recording the first touchdown of his career and leading the team with 111 receiving yards. The senior’s 16 receptions were the second-most in a single game in NU history.

“Zeke’s a big time player,” Kafka said. “He goes out there and plays every week; it’s nothing new to us.”

Markshausen and wide receiver Andrew Brewer were Kafka’s favorite targets on the day. The two combined for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 24 receptions. But the senior wide outs couldn’t do it alone. The duo got little help from NU’s running backs, who rushed eight times for 34 yards.

“I see a team right now that’s not in a very good mood,” Fitzgerald said. “We come on the road, we start the right way, we give ourselves a chance to be in a football game against a very good team,and we didn’t get the job done. So what are you going to do about it? That’s what I asked them.”

Fans will see how the team responds next week when NU welcomes Indiana to Ryan Field for a Homecoming clash.

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