Football: Despite Johnson’s strong performance, defensive struggles and missed opportunities mark Northwestern’s 38-21 loss to Michigan State


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Payton Thorne evades a Northwestern defender. The Michigan State quarterback threw for 185 yards and a touchdown to help the Spartans beat the Wildcats 38-21.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


Coming out of halftime in front of 34,248 fans, Northwestern needed a momentum shift.

Even though the Wildcats racked up 195 yards of offense, they scored on only one of three possessions inside the Michigan State 25-yard line. While senior quarterback Hunter Johnson tossed 195 yards and a touchdown, the Spartans limited NU’s ground game to just 23 yards and 18 carries.

As NU received the ball at the start of the third quarter, its spark arrived from an unlikely source. Sophomore running back Evan Hull, listed as the starter on this week’s depth chart but the recipient of just one pass and one carry in the first half, sprinted for 49 yards into Michigan State territory.

The Cats soon reached the Spartans’ nine-yard line, but the drive stunted. An illegal motion sent NU back five yards. Johnson was sacked three plays later. Then graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 38-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, the latest in a series of missed opportunities that contributed to the Cats’ 38-21 season-opening loss at Ryan Field.

“I don’t want to discredit Michigan State’s effort, but obviously we made a lot of mistakes,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotta execute better in the kick game. Then the trips into the red zone without points. We ended up having self-inflicted wounds, either a penalty or a blown assignment or just a mistargeted thing. We gotta look at all of it and make sure we get our plan shored up.”

NU (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) passed the 30-yard line of Michigan State (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) six times, yet registered points on only half of those attempts. On the other side of the ball, the Cats struggled to stop Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III, who racked up 264 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries.

While Hunter Johnson played his best game in an NU uniform — with 283 yards and three touchdowns and a 69.7 completion percentage — miscues plagued the team’s chances of beating Michigan State for the first time since 2018.

On the game’s first play, Walker III sprinted to his left, shed a tackle from senior safety Bryce Jackson and raced untouched to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. The Cats looked like they would respond to the score, as Johnson and sophomore wide receiver Bryce Kirtz connected for a 41-yard completion inside Michigan State territory. However, a 44-yard attempt from Kuhbander missed the mark.

The Spartans capitalized on the miscue by marching 74 yards down the field, with Walker III punctuating the drive on a three-yard touchdown to give Michigan State a 14-point lead.

By the end of the quarter, the Spartans had 189 yards, including 128 on the ground.

“We’re just going to analyze reasons why we missed tackles, why plays weren’t being made and why these big plays were busting,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “Tackling is a thing that we take pride in. The performance we had tackling tonight wasn’t (up) to par.”

Boasting the nation’s fifth-best scoring defense last season, NU gave up more points Friday night than in any of its 2020 contests and allowed more than double its scoring average (15.89). A unit running new starters at defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety racked up 49 tackles compared to Michigan State’s 73.

Additionally, it struggled to stop the balance of the Spartans’ rushing attack and quarterback Payton Thorne, who threw for 185 yards and one touchdown.

“We misfit some gaps, now we’re making arm tackles,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe we weren’t aggressive enough for our run fits or we overran some things. Those fundamentals start and end with us as a coaching staff and we’re gonna get those fixed.”

Issues persisted early on offense as well. The Cats found themselves in 11 third down and three fourth down situations during the first half and failed to earn a new set of downs on their second drive of the game, which ended at Michigan State’s 22-yard line. When Johnson found fifth-year tight end Trey Pugh for a one-yard touchdown at the end of the second quarter, it completed a six minute and 44-second march.

Meanwhile, the Spartans scored 21 points in just over ten minutes.

“There’s a lot of stuff to fix… from a communication aspect,” Johnson said. “Just being on the same page with my guys. There’s some plays that were left out there and I think there’s room to improve.”

However, Johnson’s performance showcased the improvement from his 2019 season that coaches praised during preseason camp. The Indiana native’s rapport with Kirtz, who caught a team-high seven passes for 80 yards and graduate wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. — who reeled in five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown, including a 47-yard catch-and-run — helped lead NU to two late touchdowns.

On a drive early in the fourth quarter, Johnson went 11-for-11 for 59 yards and found Pugh for his second score of the day. For a moment, it seemed like the Cats had a shot to shift the game in their direction, but a 50-yard run by Walker III stunted that opportunity. The teams then traded points near the game’s conclusion, as Michigan State was successful on all five of its red zone opportunities.

The Cats only converted on two of their four trips.

During the final 30 minutes, the running game gradally opened up as Hull — who Fitzgerald said has been nursing a lower-body injury suffered during preseason camp — finished with 87 yards on nine attempts.

As NU readies for three straight non-conference contests, Fitzgerald is prepared to adjust. However, he said the lessons learned in Friday’s defeat will remain pertinent.

“A lot of that chatter going on during the end of the fourth quarter about things that we have fresh in our mind,” Fitzgerald said, “we want to build upon (them) within the next week and beyond.”

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Twitter: @dschott328 

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