Markshausen, White set tone in NU loss

Danny Daly

EAST LANSING, MICH. – Saturday’s game at Spartan Stadium featured two wide receivers giving career-best performances. Northwestern’s Zeke Markshausen and Michigan State’s Blair White, both seniors and former walk-ons, set or matched their highest reception, yardage and touchdown totals for a single game.

The way their efforts were utilized highlight some of the reasons why Michigan State came away with a 24-14 victory.

Before this season, Markshausen had registered one career catch. But he has emerged as the most reliable option in the Wildcats’ passing game, and Saturday was no different. Markshausen reeled in 16 passes, the second highest single-game total in NU history, for 111 yards and his first career touchdown.

During the course of the game, Markshausen was not aware of how close he was getting to the school record.

“You kind of get lost in the game,” he said. “You’re realizing it’s third down or second down, but you’re not realizing, ‘Hey, I’ve got so many catches,’ or whatever.”

For most of the year, Markshausen has been Kafka’s go-to guy on third down, helping the offense keep the chains moving. But a porous running attack has forced the Cats to throw more, and Kafka seemingly leans more on Markshausen every week. After four combined receptions in the first two games, Markshausen has caught at least five passes in each of the past five games. Meanwhile, handoffs in the backfield are becoming less prominent.That trend continued in East Lansing, Mich. A player listed as a running back carried the ball for NU only eight times, gaining 36 yards – a total inflated by junior Stephen Simmons’ 18-yard scamper on the last play of the first half.

“If we can’t run it, I’m not going to just keep running it just to say, ‘Gosh darn it, I want to run the ball,'” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I want to win, so we need to do whatever we need to do to find a way to win. If that means we have to throw the ball 175 times in a game, that’s what we’ll do.”

As a result, throwing short passes to Markshausen began to replace the production running the ball usually provides. Of Markshausen’s 16 catches, nine were on first down – more than in his first six games combined – and Kafka targeted him on seven of NU’s last 11 first down plays. Markshausen gained 50 yards on first down, or 5.6 yards per reception.

“Zeke played well, he gave us a chance,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got great hands, he finds a way to get open and just continues to work his tail off to help us win.”

On the other hand, Michigan State ran 15 times on first down for 83 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The Spartans made it a priority to establish the run, and that enabled White to get open down the field.

“We had anticipated (White) having some matchups out there that we liked the game and we were able to go after that,” Spartans offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. “At the same time, we still want to be balanced and run the football. We’re still going to try to find ways … to (have) balance in what we do.”

White did most of his damage in the second half, catching touchdown passes on each of Michigan State’s first two drives in the third quarter. A 22-yard connection from quarterback Kirk Cousins to White in traffic tied the game. On the next possession, White snuck behind the secondary after a fake handoff for a 47-yard touchdown, putting the Spartans ahead for good.

Both of those gains were bigger than Markshausen’s longest catch of the game, which went for 20 yards. White had nine receptions of at least 10 yards, while Markshausen had just two.

The difference in the teams’ offensive lines was a factor in the Spartans’ win as well. Michigan State has allowed six sacks in seven games, and Cousins was rarely hurried on Saturday. Opposing teams have dropped Kafka behind the line of scrimmage 17 times, including three by the Spartans.

Pressure had a role in NU’s failure to convert a key fourth down in the fourth quarter. A completion to Markshausen was two yards short of the first-down marker, and the game was all but over after that. Markshausen sensed Michigan State’s pass rush gave the play less time to develop.

“I just needed to push that route a little deeper,” he said. “They were bringing on heat, too, so I felt like Mike had to get rid of it pretty soon.”

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