Football: Northwestern’s winning streak against Michigan State comes to an end in ugly fashion

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Football: Northwestern’s winning streak against Michigan State comes to an end in ugly fashion

Brian Lewerke funs away from a Northwestern defender. Lewerke earned his first win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Brian Lewerke funs away from a Northwestern defender. Lewerke earned his first win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Brian Lewerke funs away from a Northwestern defender. Lewerke earned his first win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Brian Lewerke funs away from a Northwestern defender. Lewerke earned his first win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Andrew Golden, Sports Editor

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Despite being in opposite sides of the Big Ten, Northwestern and Michigan State had faced off in the past three years coming into Saturday’s game.

In those games, the Wildcats had dominated their Big Ten East foes, outscoring them 122-90. If NU (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) had beaten the Spartans at home, it would’ve been the Cats’ longest winning streak in the series history.

But on a dreary day at Ryan Field, it was the Spartans who dictated the flow of the game, handily beating NU 31-10. On Saturday, the strengths that the Cats had relied on in previous games against Michigan State were non-existent and exposed their flaws in the secondary that had plagued them in previous matchups.

“There were a lot of plays that I saw Michigan State run today that we expected to see,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “For us not to execute on those things, is a credit, first of all, to Michigan State, they executed better than we did… and now we gotta wonder why we’re not doing it.”

While Michigan State had boasted a stingy defense in the past, NU always found a way to put together one of its best offensive performances of the season. But one thing was noticeably different from games in the past: a lack of experience and poise that the Cats had come to rely on from Clayton Thorson.

Due to the Spartans front seven, the Cats’ game plan in previous years had been to pass first and Thorson thrived against them, compiling a stat line of 91-for-130, 1,010 yards, 10 TDs and 5 INTs. The Wildcats’ career leader in passing yards — now with the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad — always seemed to have a knack for sustaining drives when the Cats needed it the most, something NU couldn’t consistently do Saturday.

Through three quarters, sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson went 15-of-26 for just 88 yards and an interception that led to a Michigan State touchdown late in the first half. In the fourth quarter, coach Pat Fitzgerald turned to junior quarterback Aidan Smith to create a spark on an offense that lacked explosiveness all game, but it was too late.

In Saturday’s matchup, NU opted to run the ball more with its inexperienced quarterbacks, calling 44 rush plays and 37 pass plays, with Smith’s pass plays coming in garbage time. While Fitzgerald said 15 of those plays were RPOs and could’ve been passes, the play calling was a drastic change from the past two years when the Cats rushed just 20 and 24 times, respectively.

While the offense was in a funk for most of the game, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke stayed in his rhythm from the past two matchups. In those games, he completed 70 of his 108 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns.

The senior showed his poise as he picked apart a young Cats’ secondary, throwing for three touchdowns and completing almost 60 percent of his passes. Despite his great performances in the past, he had never gotten over the hump until Saturday.

The Cats will now have to regroup after losing their first conference game of the season to a familiar conference opponent. In order to defend the Big Ten West, NU will have to fix some of its flaws before next week’s matchup against another familiar opponent, Wisconsin.

“I’ve unfortunately had my nose bloodied before and so have a lot of guys in that room,” Fitzgerald said. “So, number one, we gotta stick together… we gotta work hard to get better individually.”

Email: andrewgolden2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @andrewcgolden

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