Football: Northwestern exorcises second-half demons, holds off No. 20 Michigan State for statement win


Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior receiver Ben Skowronek stretches for a pass. The passing game clicked for Northwestern all afternoon long in a 29-19 upset win over Michigan State.

Jonah Dylan, Managing Editor


EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

For the fifth time this season, Northwestern jumped out to a lead in the first half, this time at No. 20 Michigan State. Then in the second half, the Spartans erased the deficit and took a lead with 4:08 to go in the third quarter. The 72,850 fans inside Spartan Stadium started to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

And then the Wildcats flipped the script.

Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson promptly drove NU (2-3, 2-1 Big Ten) the length of the field and found junior superback Cameron Green for a 21-yard touchdown, giving NU a lead it never relinquished in an eventual 29-19 victory. It was the Cats’ third straight win over Michigan State (3-2, 1-1), which lost to NU in triple overtime a year ago.

“It was a huge win for us,” Thorson said. “And it’s great for our guys to come back, respond from losing three straight, and in a hostile environment, really good team, really good program, this is a great win for us.”

For the first time this season, the Wildcats did not score first. But after a Michigan State field goal, Thorson found sophomore receiver Kyric McGowan streaking down the east sideline for a 77-yard score, the first of Thorson’s three long touchdown tosses on the afternoon.

NU controlled the remainder of the first half despite rushing for minus-20 yards, but the Spartans sprinted out of the halftime break. Felton Davis broke free of the NU defense on a reverse for a 48-yard touchdown, and another score three minutes later — aided by the temporary absence of senior cornerback Montre Hartage, forcing the Cats to rely on green, little-used reserves — gave the hosts their third-quarter lead.

But the Cats would not go away. On the ensuing drive, Thorson found Nagel for a key third down conversion in Michigan State territory. A play later, he found Green for the 21-yard touchdown.

The Cats’ resilience wasn’t limited to the offense. Michigan State had multiple chances to answer, and with 4:24 left in the game, the Spartans took over at their own 2-yard line and were quickly faced with fourth-and-1. Yet when it mattered most, the Cats’ defense stood tall. Sophomore safety J.R. Pace stuffed Connor Heyward at the line of scrimmage and NU took over deep in Michigan State territory.

“It’s a crazy play, fourth and one on the goal line, it’s kind of one of those situations that you dream of as a kid,” junior defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “As a defensive player you kind of have to focus in on the keys and focus in on the play and you can’t let the moment get too big for you, because that’s a big play for us.”

Three plays later, Thorson punched it in with a quarterback sneak to take the air out of Spartan Stadium for the final time.

As impressive as the defense was, the offense managed to continue creating explosive plays in the second half. Despite two interceptions — one of which was a ball that ricocheted off freshman running back Drake Anderson’s helmet and into the hands of a Spartan defender —- Thorson put up huge numbers. He tossed for 373 yards and three touchdowns.

After the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald had high praise for his quarterback.

“Number one, the guy’s a winner,” he said. “And he’s absolutely terrific as a leader, and as a senior quarterback, sometimes everything’s on you, and he handles the adversity I think incredibly well and he’s got incredible humility when he has success, and I think that’s the mark of a great leader.”

It was a much-needed win for Thorson and NU, which — despite two nonconference losses — now has a winning record in the Big Ten and is undefeated on the road. After two straight games against ranked teams, the Cats will return home to face winless Nebraska.

“From the outside looking in, it looked like we’d been struggling to put up points in the second half,” Thorson said. “But we’ve been moving the ball a lot, and some self-inflicted wounds had put us behind the sticks. We’ve got to finish some drives and finish some games, and that’s what we did today…We’re going to be a pretty freaking good football team.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @thejonahdylan