Football: Big plays on long yardage situations prove costly for Northwestern defense

Colin Becht

Michigan State converted just five of 14 third downs on Saturday.

That’s not bad for Northwestern’s defense. In fact, that’s pretty good, not much worse than its 29 percent conversion rate on the season entering Saturday’s game.

Too bad when NU did surrender conversions, they were long ones and typically led to points.

“(There were) some costly third downs and fourth downs where we didn’t get off the field,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had plenty of opportunities to win the game.”

Three of Michigan State’s five third-down conversions came on plays of at least seven yards. In the second half alone, NU had the Spartans backed up with second-, third-, or fourth-down-and-long, and six of those times, Michigan State converted for the first down.

Most damaging of all, four of the Spartans’ five touchdowns involved conversions of “down-and-long” situations.

“You look at Michigan State on tape before you play them and you say, ‘Okay, if we can stop the run, if we can get them in situations where they’re going to throw the ball on second-and-long and third-and-long, we like our chances,'” junior linebacker Bryce McNaul said. “Obviously it’s quite disappointing when you have them in those situations and we don’t get off the field.”

On the touchdown drive that proved to be Michigan State’s game-winner, the Cats surrendered first downs after backing the Spartans into second-and-20 and third-and-15 situations.

“We’ve got to find a way to make some plays down the stretch,” Fitzgerald said.

Michigan State moved to within three points early in the fourth quarter thanks to a drive that was sustained by three and-long conversions, most notably a fake punt pass converted on fourth-and-11. Punter Aaron Bates completed a pass to wide receiver Bennie Fowler for 23 yards.

“We were having a safe punt, and normally we chuck the guy probably 10, 15 yards and then let him go just because we don’t want to get hit by the punt,” junior cornerback Jordan Mabin said. “I wasn’t really thinking ‘fake’ at the moment.”

Because the punt return scheme called for Mabin to let his man go, Fowler had no trouble getting separation.

The Spartans’ only points of the first half were similarly set up by a down-and-long conversion as the Northwestern defense was unable to get off the field after backing Michigan State into third-and-12.

While the Cats’ most costly struggles in their pass coverage came on third and fourth down, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins had little trouble picking apart NU on early downs as well. He threw for three touchdowns and 329 yards, 199 of them coming in the second half.

“We’ve got to get to the quarterback, we’ve got to affect him when he’s throwing the ball,” McNaul said. “And then in our secondary, we need to be breaking on balls.”

Mabin said the secondary wasn’t getting burned by Michigan State wide receivers, but were instead “just one or two steps behind the pass.”

Still, wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham had little trouble getting separation from their coverage, catching a combined 17 balls for 220 yards and three touchdowns.

“We had our set coverages, and if we executed, we’d win,” junior safety Brian Peters said.

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