Football: Northwestern’s offense continues to look lifeless in ugly loss to Michigan State

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Football: Northwestern’s offense continues to look lifeless in ugly loss to Michigan State

Michigan State's Joe Bachie tackles redshirt freshman Drake Anderson. Anderson led the Wildcats with 91 rushing yards.

Michigan State's Joe Bachie tackles redshirt freshman Drake Anderson. Anderson led the Wildcats with 91 rushing yards.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Michigan State's Joe Bachie tackles redshirt freshman Drake Anderson. Anderson led the Wildcats with 91 rushing yards.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Michigan State's Joe Bachie tackles redshirt freshman Drake Anderson. Anderson led the Wildcats with 91 rushing yards.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor

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Just five minutes into the game and with Northwestern already trailing by a touchdown, the special teams unit created the play the Wildcats needed to give their offense new life.

Sophomore cornerback Cameron Ruiz forced Michigan State punt returner Cody White to fumble, and junior safety Travis Whillock recovered the ball at the Spartans’ 27. Suddenly, with a short field, NU had a golden opportunity to tie things up.

But after advancing to the 1-yard line, the Cats grounded to a halt. Sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser twice tried to punch the ball in, to no avail, and on fourth down, sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson tried a speed option that was snuffed out immediately.

Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) took over on downs, and NU (1-2, 0-1) was never able to tie the game, ultimately losing 31-10.

“We thought we had a pretty good plan coming in as far as taking what the defense would give us,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “There were opportunities that we missed. We get the ball down inside the 1 and go backwards.”

The failure to score on the goal line epitomized another poor overall offensive showing. Yes, the Spartans’ run defense is excellent — Michigan State entered Saturday allowing a nation-leading 0.9 yards per carry. But the Cats, who had beaten the Spartans the last two years behind a strong passing attack, still decided to run the ball 40 times, compared to 37 passing attempts.

Spartans linebacker Joe Bachie had a monster game, finishing with 14 total tackles, including two for a loss, to go along with an interception and two pass breakups.

Despite the offensive ineptitude, NU trailed just 14-3 at halftime, after the Spartans drove 62 yards following a Johnson interception to extend their lead. With the Cats getting the ball to start the second half, a comeback seemed quite plausible.

But by the end of the third quarter, the game was completely out of hand — because NU failed pick up a single first down during the period. The Cats gained just 19 yards on nine plays covering three possessions. Four of those plays were rushes, which netted a combined four yards.

The offense’s inability to sustain drives led to Michigan State starting each subsequent possession outside its 40-yard line. The Spartans turned those short fields into 10 points, and it would have been more if not for a missed field goal.

“We knew it was going to be critical that we sustain drives and win field position,” Fitzgerald said. “We had to win the first 5-10 minutes of the second half, and obviously we lost it.”

To start the fourth quarter, with the Cats in need of a spark, Fitzgerald turned to junior Aidan Smith, who had not thrown a single pass at the college level, to replace Johnson. But the spark never came. Smith threw an interception on his second attempt, then threw another on NU’s following possession after Michigan State extended its lead to 31-3.

Even with a garbage-time touchdown run by redshirt freshman running back Drake Anderson, the final numbers for the quarterbacks were not pretty — a combined 19-for-37 passing for 126 yards and three interceptions. NU actually managed 3.2 yards per rush, with Anderson leading the way with 91 yards, but much of that was achieved late in the game against the Spartans’ second-string defense.

“It ultimately comes down to execution,” senior center Jared Thomas said. “We’ve got to move the line of scrimmage, especially in goal-line situations. We left some points out there, and we have to execute better down the stretch and in the red zone so that we can set ourselves up to be successful.”

Email: benjaminrosenberg2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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