Notebook: NU stands strong in short yardage situations

Danny Daly

EAST LANSING, MICH. – The first two minutes of Saturday’s game could not have gone much better for Michigan State. The Spartans won the opening coin toss, chose to receive, ran the kick back into Wildcats territory and needed just four plays to advance to Northwestern’s 4-yard line.

That’s where NU’s defensive line took over.

The Cats started getting constant pressure, and they stopped each of the next four rushing plays short of the goal line. The unit did not let up during the rest of the half, registering four tackles for a loss.

“We were playing well,” senior defensive tackle Adam Hahn said. “We were penetrating, we were getting off blocks, we were making plays in the backfield. We just had momentum on our side and kept it on our side.”

The line was winning the battle in the trenches even though its best player, senior defensive end Corey Wootton, played sparingly for the second week in a row. The preseason All-American candidate has been hampered by an ankle injury in addition to the lingering effects of offseason knee surgery. Wootton lined up on a few third-and-long situations. One of those times he was flagged for an offsides penalty, negating a play that would have gotten the defense off the field.

Wootton still might not be 100 percent, but the line has found ways to make up some of his production.

“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Hahn said. “If you look even when Corey was healthy, we rotate eight, nine, 10 guys into the game. We have a lot of young guys.”

Several of those underclassmen got reps against Michigan State, including five sophomores and redshirt freshmen. Sophomores Vince Browne and Kevin Watt started on the outside.

While the Cats had some success against the run, they rarely got a hand on quarterback Kirk Cousins. He was not hurried or sacked and seemingly had all day to throw on a couple of plays.

The second half was not quite as successful for the defensive line, but it stepped up near the end of regulation to give the offense another chance to score. Right after the offense turned it over on downs, the defense held on second-and-one and third-and-one, forcing a punt.

“That’s our goal, is to just get the ball back as fast as we can to the offense,” Hahn said. “We did it (in) the fourth quarter, but it was just too little, too late.”

There were six plays in which the Spartans had three yards or fewer to go on second, third or fourth down. Michigan State failed to convert the first down every time.

LINEBACKERS NO REMEDY

All season long, Michigan State junior linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon have been nightmares for opposing offenses. That duo was not the best medicine for an offensive line and a running attack that have struggled mightily of late.

Jones and Gordon combined for 29 tackles, 4.5 of which were for a loss, and all three of the Spartans’ sacks.

“They’re great players – we knew that coming into this game,” sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore said. “They’re very athletic, very versatile and they make lots of plays. They did that against us, just like every other team they’ve played.”

They made their biggest impact at different points in the game. Gordon could not be stopped early on, recording his ninth tackle less than two minutes into the second quarter.And Jones took over in the fourth quarter. He hurried Kafka twice, stopped senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen short of the marker on a critical fourth-and-10 and almost had an interception on the next series.

SOPHOMORE SAFETIES STEPPING UP

Last weekend, senior safety Brendan Smith left the game before halftime with a mysterious upper body injury. The same thing happened to Smith’s partner in the secondary, senior Brad Phillips, at Spartan Stadium.

Phillips went to the sidelines after missing a tackle behind the line of scrimmage on an end-around. He did not return, leaving sophomore Jared Carpenter to take his spot alongside sophomore Brian Peters, who was filling in for Smith.

Considering the circumstances, coach Pat Fitzgerald was satisfied with the performance he got from Carpenter in his first extended action of the season.

“For the most part, he went out there and executed the game plan,” Fitzgerald said. “There will be some things we’ll look at on the video where we can get better, but he was prepared mentally.”

Carpenter finished with four tackles, while Peters tied for the team lead with 11. Against Miami (OH), Peters had an interception and recovered a fumble.

“We have two young safeties out there, a little baptism under fire,” Fitzgerald said. “They did a nice job stepping up.”

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