Football: Michigan State outplays and upsets No. 8 Northwestern


Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Paddy Fisher makes a tackle. The senior had 12 tackles in NU’s loss to Michigan State.

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


No. 8 Northwestern entered Saturday’s game against Michigan State as almost two-touchdown favorites with a chance to hoist the Big Ten West Division title at the end of the day.

Instead, the Wildcats left East Lansing empty-handed, as the Spartans handed them an ego check and their first loss of the season.

Michigan State (2-3, 2-3 Big Ten) outplayed NU (5-1, 5-1) in all three phases at Spartan Stadium as the Spartans pulled the top-10 upset by a score of 29-20.

“Michigan State played a good game,” senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t make the plays we were supposed to.”

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi completed only 11 of his 27 passes for Michigan State. But Lombardi and running back Connor Heyward paced a rushing attack that gave the Cats defense fits all day to the tune of 195 rushing yards.

Graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey was uneven as well, but mistakes were the big differences between the two offenses. The Cats had four turnovers, four drops and four sacks as Ramsey struggled to find a clean pocket.

The first half was easily NU’s worst half of the season, although it didn’t start that way. The defense held the Spartans to a three-and-out on the first possession of the game, and then Ramsey picked apart Michigan State all the way into the red zone. But once the Cats entered the red zone, the game quickly flipped on its head.

On 2nd-and-1 from the 18, Drake Anderson lost a yard. Junior quarterback Andrew Marty gained it back on the next play, setting up fourth down. Coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for it, and Isaiah Bowser was stopped in the backfield for a turnover on downs.

One play later, wide receiver Jalen Nailor beat junior cornerback Cameron Ruiz on the outside, and Lombardi dropped a dime into Nailor’s hands for a 75-yard touchdown.

“Nothing surprised us,” senior middle linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “We came in with a solid game plan. It just came down to executing the job and we just didn’t do that in certain situations.”

The next possession saw NU again enter Michigan State territory and go for it on fourth down. Again, the Cats failed to convert, with Ramsey throwing the ball right into the hands of Shakur Brown. Brown dashed 54 yards to the NU 11, setting up a field goal that put Michigan State up 10-0 at the end of the first.

The second quarter started with another missed opportunity for the Cats. On a third down play, Lombardi perfectly placed a pass to Jaylen Reed in the end zone for the Spartans to go up 17-0, the same deficit NU faced four weeks ago against Iowa.

Senior kicker Charlie Kuhbander was able to nail two field goals in the quarter to cut the deficit to 17-6 at the half.

“We gave up an explosive play early and that’s a tough thing to somewhat overcome,” Fitzgerald said. “And then we get the tough turnover. Similar to what happened at Iowa, we put ourselves in a hole but I thought the guys responded.”

The Cats offense came out of the break looking like it had the first five weeks of the season. Ramsey completed three passes of 10-plus yards, and a trick play with wide receiver Riley Lees passing to Marty set NU inside the 5-yard line. On fourth-and-goal Ramsey faked an inside handoff and bootlegged out to the right to a wide-open sea of green to bring the deficit to 17-13.

NU kept clawing back into the game, and finally went ahead in the fourth quarter. True freshman running back Cam Porter capped off an eight-play, 37-yard drive by receiving a direct snap and rumbling right up the gut into the end zone.

Three plays later, the Cats got their biggest break of the game when Fisher intercepted Lombardi, setting up NU ball inside the Spartans half of the field. But it all came crumbling down mere seconds later, when Kryic McGowan fumbled on a jet sweep and Michigan State recovered.

“That was a big momentum swing right there, especially when it’s a self-inflicted wound,” Fitzgerald said. “You got to do the things that winners do.”

The Spartans responded by driving down to the NU 31, where Matt Coughlin’s kick sailed right through the uprights to tie the game at 20.

The Cats had four possessions the rest of the game — each of them lasting exactly three plays. The second possession ended with Ramsey trying to find Berkeley Holman, but Brown getting there first and bumping helmets with the junior wideout. Holman stayed on the ground for over 10 minutes before being stretchered off, but Fitzgerald said after the game that Holman’s early prognosis is good.

The Spartans capitalized on the interception, getting into field goal range and letting Coughlin put them up 23-20 on a 48-yarder. Michigan State added its final touchdown on the final play, when Kalon Gervin recovered a loose ball in the end zone.

“I think the difference is the turnovers,” Fitzgerald said. “If our field goal drives end up being touchdown drives, it’s a different game.”

As heartbreaking as the loss may have been, NU’s season is not over. The Big Ten West Division is still there for the taking, meaning a trip to Indianapolis would still be on in less than a month’s time.

But the glitz and glamour of what could have come after have drifted away like a wayward skiff on the choppy and uncertain waters of Lake Michigan.

“We are going to come back and fix what we need to fix on Monday and keep on going,” senior linebacker Blake Gallagher said. “We are going to scratch, claw and fight to win these next two Big Ten West games to put us in the Big Ten Championship.”

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