Football: Northwestern’s win over Michigan State reverses trajectory of 2018 season


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Jordan Thompson and Joe Gaziano converge on Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke. The Wildcats’ upset win could reverse the course of their season.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


EAST LANSING, Mich. — For sophomore linebacker Chris Bergin, Northwestern’s win over No. 20 Michigan State on Saturday had special meaning.

Bergin, whose father won a Rose Bowl as a starter for the Spartans in the 1980s, said he didn’t get a sniff from Michigan State during the recruiting process. Instead, he walked on with the Wildcats, worked his way up and finally earned his first career start Saturday, helping power NU (2-3, 2-1 Big Ten) to a 29-19 upset win.

“This is probably the best moment of my life so far,” he said afterwards.

The rest of the Cats’ roster likely wouldn’t go that far with their descriptions. Many of them have previously started in postseason bowls, ranked-vs.-ranked matchups, even prior upsets over Michigan State (3-2, 1-1).

Yet it’s difficult to say that any of those other games were as important toward saving a season as this one.

Entering the afternoon as double-digit underdogs, NU was staring down the throat — a vile, unsavory throat at that — of a 1-4 record. With remaining matchups against title contenders Notre Dame and Wisconsin and tricky road trips to Iowa and Minnesota still on the schedule, 1-4 would realistically have been a nice way to spell “doomed,” at least in terms of postseason opportunities.

At 2-3, however, there is a viable road back to respectability.

“We’ve been really close the last three weeks,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “In a hostile environment … for us to be resilient down the stretch is starting to show a little bit of our maturity growing.”

The win makes a significant difference in the standings but also should do wonders for the team’s psyche, which had been flogged by the discouragement of blowing 21-3 and 17-0 leads in the past two games.

The offense, previously shut out in every second half except for the Akron game, responded to squandering another lead — 14-3 this time — by executing a perfectly timed 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, regaining that lead for good. The defense, missing both starting cornerbacks at times, made all the stops it needed to in the nail-biting fourth quarter. Even graduate transfer punter Jake Collins boomed rockets for the special teams unit.

“It’s been pretty clear that after we’ve gone on a run, we’ve struggled to put points up after that,” senior offensive lineman Tommy Doles said. “For us to take that next step, get over that hurdle and just … know that we’re still in this fight, that meant a lot to us.”

All those aforementioned challenging contests still loom on the horizon — they’re not going anywhere — and the Cats have a lot of work left to do to make up for an 0-3 home record.

Yet they’ve seemingly now found the U-turn lane, at least. Next week’s homecoming contest against a sinking Nebraska program and the following Saturday’s visit to a stagnant-in-the-basement Rutgers team are arguably NU’s easiest matchups this fall.

Win those two, and the Cats are back above .500 entering the season-defining two-week stretch when the Badgers and Fighting Irish will march into Evanston.

“You’ve got to win in order to go on a run,” Thorson said Saturday afternoon.

He’s not wrong.

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