Rapid Recap: Michigan State 29, Northwestern 20

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Senior Staffer


Football


Northwestern entered Saturday’s contest against Michigan State in an unfamiliar position. ESPN’s Win Probability chart gave the Wildcats (5-1, 5-1 Big Ten) an 88% chance of winning. It was a sharp contrast to a year prior, when NU’s offense led by Hunter Johnson got stomped by Spartans 31-10. For a while it looked like that result could repeat itself. The Cats were down 17 in the first quarter and looked lost on both sides of the ball. But, the team battled back to take the lead early in the fourth quarter. In the end, NU lost to Michigan State (2-3, 2-3 Big Ten) 29-20 despite its efforts and suffered a setback to its College Football Playoff Hopes.

The Cats were stunned in the first quarter. A solid first offensive drive came to an end when junior running back Isaiah Bowser was stopped on fourth down in the red zone. After a Peyton Ramsey interception, the Spartans struck first when Lombardi found Jalen Nailor with a 75-yard pass on the ensuing drive’s first play. It was Lombardi’s only complete pass of the first quarter, but it was for more yards than the Cats accounted for all quarter.

After Ramsey threw an interception on another fourth down try in the middle of the first quarter, Michigan State’s offense took advantage of the short field for a field goal, and left the first frame of play leading 10-0. They’d add another touchdown early in the second quarter, as Lombardi took advantage of sophomore cornerback Cam Ruiz to find Jayden Reed in the endzone.

NU would respond with a 14-play, 51-yard drive that led to a field goal. In it, the Cats capitalized on a false start penalty by Matt Allen to finally convert on fourth down. They score another field goal on the next drive, tightening the score to 17-6.

The Cats continued the comeback bid at the beginning of the second half, engineering a disciplined 75-yard, 10-play touchdown drive to cut the deficit to four points. NU had four cracks at the end zone after wide receiver Riley Lees’s trick play throw to quarterback Andrew Marty got the Cats to within five yards of the endzone. They hit paydirt on fourth down, when Ramsey faked a handoff before running in the score on a bootleg play.

The Cats took their first lead of the game with 14 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, as first year running back Cam Porter finished off an 8-play, 37-yard drive with a running back option score out of the wildcat formation.

The teams would then trade takeaways. First, Paddy Fisher intercepted Lombardi’s third down pass at midfield. Just one play later, with a chance to expand on NU’s three-point lead, Kyric McGowan fumbled the ball on a handoff. The Spartans would march down the field and settle for a field goal, tying the game at 20 apiece.

The teams would then trade takeaways. First, Paddy Fisher intercepted Lombardi’s third down pass at midfield, and on the next play Kyric McGowan fumbled the ball on a handoff. The Spartans would take over, marching down the field and settle for a game-tying field goal.

Ramsey’s interception, his second of the game, came with just over 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter. His ball was underthrown, and junior wide receiver Berkley Holman was injured trying to make the catch. The Spartans turned that interception into a field goal, a part of the nine points they scored off Northwestern turnovers.

Takeaways

1. The running game continues to struggle

Much like what happened against Wisconsin last week and Purdue the week before, Northwestern’s running backs have been unable to break through the front seven of opposing teams. In the first half against Michigan State, the Cats accounted for just 45 rushing yards. In the second half, the team tried to get other positions involved in the ground game. But Kyric McGowan’s fumble in the fourth quarter proved costly after Paddy Fisher’s interception gave the ball to the Cats offense. The Spartans went on to add a field goal to knot the game at 20. . They’d add just 28 yards in the second half, forcing Ramsey and the passing attack to shoulder much of the burden as the Cats worked to comeback in the fourth quarter.

2. Defense unable to get penetration like we’re accustomed to

Coming off a stifling defensive performance against WIsconsin, the Cats looked prime to continue their hot play against Michigan State. The Spartans had been shut out for their last five quarters, scoring only 7 points in the last two games combined. Rocky Lombardi, who has struggled with accuracy and decision making as a passer all season, got by Northwestern’s defense with his legs. He ran for 43 yards in the first half alone, including a 21 yard dash on third and long to extend a late second quarter and keep the Cats offense off the field. The defense got to Lombardi more in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Spartans from winning the game late. Lombardi would add another monster run, keeping his offense on the field on third and ten with a gutsy 12-yard run late in the fourth quarter. That run helped Michigan State take a three-point lead with just under four minutes left in the fourth quarter. He came through a final time on Michigan State’s last drive in the fourth quarter, extending the drive and effectively ending the game with a 10-yard run on third and eight. The defense finished the game with three quarterback hits and zero sacks.

3. The Wildcats have slim to no chance of making the CFP, but can still win the Big Ten West.

Northwestern came into this game with a serious shot at the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history. Behind the noise around last week’s win over Wisconsin and Joey Galloway’s comments last week, there was an understanding that the Cats had to win out for any shot at national glory. NU still looks like a solid bet to contend for a Big Ten West title, needing to win once in their next two games against Minnesota or Illinois to confirm it on their own. But all that excitement around a chance to compete for a national title is now gone. Now, Cats fans will have to wait until next year.

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