Post-Game Analysis: MSU
by Jonathan Hodges

Despite a valiant effort during which they didn't trail until 58 minutes into the contest, the Northwestern Wildcats (5-2, 1-2) came up short against BCS No. 7 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) by a final score of 27-35 on a blustery day in Evanston.  The 'Cats took advantage of some early Spartan mistakes to build a 17-0 first half lead, but made some costly mistakes late to allow MSU to take the lead and seal the win late.

With some early rain and gusty wind throughout the game, NU's offensive efforts through the air had their issues.  QB Dan Persa had his worst game of the year throwing the ball, completing just 62% of his passes and throwing an interception that finally put the game away for MSU.  The wind was especially evident on his passes with the wind in the game's final two minutes, as he had receivers open four times, but overthrew them each time as the wind essentially took the ball away.  Going into the game, I was telling people that wind is the worst weather condition for a pass-heavy offense, and Saturday certainly demonstrated why.

Early on and in the rain, both teams had their share of issues getting something going, and both teams had fumbling issues.  It took three punts before someone got a first down, and the Northwestern offense did much more than that on the drive, picking up three first downs on their way to a Persa rushing TD after a nice 10 play, 72 yard drive that gave the 'Cats a 7-0 lead early.

The next drive handed NU some potential momentum as MSU's Edwin Baker fumbled the ball with an NU recovery by Justan Vaughn at the NU 47 yard line.  The Wildcats' offense quickly took the reigns and racked up three consecutive first downs on their way to the Michigan State one yard line.  But, Jacob Schmidt lost the handle on the football as he was trying to pound his way into the end zone, and the Spartans recovered at the two, negating a potentially huge momentum-shifting score for the Wildcats.  This marked NU's fifth offensive red zone turnover of the year, and such costly errors have definitely put the 'Cats behind the proverbial 8-ball this year.

But, the NU defense held once again and forced an MSU punt.  After a nice 16 yard Venric Mark punt return gave NU a starting position in MSU territory, the 'Cats' offense went back to work, driving into the red zone, but eventually settling for a 37 yard Stefan Demos FG to take a 10-0 lead after a costly sack on Persa.  If not for 8 sacks for -35 yards on the day, Persa would have run for 81 yards with a 5.8 yards per carry average (he ran for all 3 of NU's TDs on the day).

Michigan State mounted their first drive of significance after a 32 yard kick return that was thankfully stopped by Demos, otherwise MSU could have shifted the momentum in their favor even quicker.  But, Demos was a bit dinged up on the play and was visibly hurt after that, but he toughed through it and did very well for himself the rest of the way.  The Spartans drove into FG position and had a 38 yard try set up for Dan Conroy, who had been perfect on the year going into the game.  His success came to an end, though, as he missed, giving the 'Cats decent field position to try and take a commanding three-score lead in the second quarter.

And that's exactly what the 'Cats did, using Mark on an end-around to pick up their largest ground gain from scrimmage since the 2008 season, a 29 yard run to the 50 yard line, to propel them downfield.  Add a 17 yard Persa to Ebert pass and a nice 22 yard scramble from Persa, and the 'Cats got into position to score and did, with a Persa one yard plunge for the TD to put the 'Cats up 17-0.

With just over six minutes remaining in the first half, the Spartans would waste no time getting on the board, driving 68 yards in 8 plays for their first score of the game, a TD pass from Kirk Cousins to Mark Dell, as MSU found the holes in the NU defensive zone, which they continued to exploit all day.  Northwestern, in order to contain the MSU rushing attack, routinely kept 7 or more men in the box and played a soft zone on the outside, even against 3+ WR sets.  This left holes in coverage along the sideline between 10 and 20 yards downfield, and MSU ran out patterns to these areas quite often.

After forcing an NU punt, MSU tried to get on the board again before the half, but three consecutive incompletions doomed that chance, and NU took the ensuing punt and downed the ball to go into halftime with a solid 17-7 lead, most definitely happy with their first half performance despite a costly red zone fumble.

In the second half, though, Michigan State both started and finished strong.  After forcing a Northwestern three-and-out to start the half, MSU put together an extremely quick three play TD-scoring drive to cut NU's lead to three.  Suddenly, the 'Cats' three-score lead was cut down to a three-point lead just minutes into the second half.

But, the teams traded punts and the Persa-led Northwestern offense put together one of its prototypical drives, a 15-play, 80 yard drive capped off by yet another Persa running TD, his third of the day, which gave the 'Cats a 24-14 lead with about three minutes left in the third quarter.  Then came the drive and play that defined the game.

MSU was driving down the field, thanks to numerous zone-busting out-route completions, but the drive seemingly stalled at the NU 31 yard line.  Going into the strong wind, a field goal was not a legitimate option, and MSU initially kept the offense out on the field to go for it on fourth-and-six.  But after a timeout, MSU put the punting unit on the field, only to pull them back and take a five-yard delay of game penalty, seemingly in order to get more room to stick the punt inside the 20.

The Spartans came back out and lined up for the punt, with Northwestern keeping the defense on the field to play the "safe punt" (not seriously going for the block or a return, but to prevent any big mistakes, e.g. a fake) but with Hunter Bates dropping back as the deep man.  But next came an MSU play named "mousetrap."

The right gunner, Bennie Fowler, took off like he was going after the punt, with CB Jordan Mabin alongside.  Mabin dropped off after about 10-15 yards, a move that on a normal punt would be a smart move, in order to avoid touching a short punt which could lead to a muff.  But Fowler cut to the outside, opening him up nicely for a pass from MSU punter Aaron Bates, who already has a game-winning TD pass on his sheet from the infamous "Little Giants" play in overtime against Notre Dame.  Although the pass hung up there for a while, neither Hunter Bates nor Mabin could get to Fowler in time, who grabbed it for a first down conversion.

MSU scored on the very next play, a Cousins pass to Dell for the score, cutting NU's lead to three once again.  And although the 'Cats still had a fourth quarter lead, it was clear that the momentum had shifted to the other sideline.  Northwestern would stave off Michigan State a bit longer, though, with a respectable return from Arby Fields on a short kickoff (that was into the wind), setting up the 'Cats at the NU 43.  Northwestern once again drove methodically down the field and found themselves in the red zone before two consecutive sacks forced a Demos field goal, which he made from 41 yards, giving NU a tenuous 6 point lead.

The teams traded punts once again, then came a very methodical drive from the Spartans, driving 88 yards in 11 plays in spite of Northwestern tallying two sacks.  The drive was capped by yet another play falling in MSU's favor, as a high pass into the end zone was tipped by NU S Brian Peters but fell into the hands of diving MSU WR B.J. Cunningham for the go-ahead score, putting MSU up 28-27.

But with five minutes left and all three timeouts, NU had plenty of chances to retake the lead.  Unfortunately, that would just not happen in this game.  On first down, Persa evaded pressure to get out of bounds for a small loss, but NU LT Al Netter committed a costly personal foul penalty by popping off a defender's helmet, putting the 'Cats way behind the chains and forcing them to pass the ball way downfield with the wind blowing strongly.

That wind, blowing behind NU, definitely affected Persa's throws.  Jeremy Ebert broke open running towards the sideline downfield, but the pass sailed long.  After a short pass to set up third-and-12, Ebert broke open down the other sideline, but once again the pass was long.  Finally, on fourth down, Ebert was open in the middle but Persa once again failed to account for the wind at his back (and probably got a bit excited with a receiver wide open in the middle), throwing it too far for him.

With 1:26 left at the NU 31, MSU just needed a first down to seal the game (since NU had all three of its timeouts remaining).  After two runs, MSU's Edwin Baker broke up the middle, breaking multiple tackles, and ran past a chance to seal the game (by just falling down beyond the first down marker and then taking successive knees) and into the end zone.  MSU would kick the extra point to take an eight point (but still one score) lead, leaving a small window of opportunity for NU with just over one minute remaining in the game.

But, once again, Persa would come up short.  This time, he threw it too long up the middle and MSU LB Eric Gordon was waiting to grab the game-sealing INT.  Despite not trailing for the first 58 minutes of the contest, Northwestern gave up some big plays at the end of the game to allow MSU to take the lead and then couldn't make some plays that were in front of them to pull off the upset after that.

This caps off a disappointing homestand for Northwestern, who now hits the road to play two win-able games: at 4-3 Indiana and at 4-3 Penn State before facing a tough stretch of games to finish off the year.  After a 5-0 start, NU must now pull it together in order to reach bowl eligibility after those two tough home losses.

Player of the Game

MSU QB Kirk Cousins (29-of-43 passing for 331 yards, 3 TDs)  Northwestern purposely took away the run and forced MSU to pass the ball.  And, despite the strong wind, Cousins passed and completed passes all day, including the go-ahead score throwing into the wind.  He avoided costly errors and did what it took for undefeated Michigan State to remain unbeaten.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

K Stefan Demos (2-of-2 FGs, 3-of-3 XPs, 2 kickoff touchbacks)  Demos responded nicely from his disappointing performance against Purdue by hitting two relatively long FGs (37 and 41 yarders) in spite of a strong wind, and also performed well on kickoffs.  He also made a big tackle on a kickoff that was close to be broken for a big gain or TD, and he suffered an apparent injury on that play that he didn't let affect his performance the rest of the day.

NU Running Game:  The 'Cats two primary RBs averaged 4.7 yards per carry, with Mike Trumpy hitting 5.0 yards per carry on his way to 50 yards on the day; true freshman Adonis Smith added 44 on 10 carries on his biggest workload to date.  Plus, Persa added 81 yards on the ground while Mark had 29 on a nice end-around.  Overall, the 'Cats gained 209 yards on the ground with a very respectable 5.4 yards per carry average.

WR/PR/KR Venric Mark (1 rush for 29 yards, 2 punt returns for 26 yards, 2 kick returns for 42 yards)  In the most action the true freshman has seen, he led NU in all-purpose yards with 97 on the day, including an impressive run from scrimmage and some nice-looking returns.  There is little doubt that he will break a return for a big gain at some point if Fitz continues to put him out there as the return man.

LB Bryce McNaul (10 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack)  McNaul has come on nicely now that he's secured a starting spot and is over an early-season injury.  He forced a big takeaway in the first half and had a nice sack on a late MSU drive along with leading Northwestern in tackles.

What to Work on

Red Zone Ball Security:  As mentioned earlier, yet another red zone turnover hurt the 'Cats by essentially taking points off the board.  Jacob Schmidt was injured on his fumble and wouldn't return, and it will be interesting to see how NU's RBs are used down the stretch as Trumpy and Smith have seemingly established themselves as the best running options going forward.

Late Come-from-Behind Drives:  For the second straight game, NU failed to put together a game-winning (or even tying) drive after being down by three points or fewer late in the game.  The Wildcats managed to put together such a drive at Minnesota but came up short against both Purdue (missed FG) and MSU (turnover on downs).  Dan Persa looked at his worst all season late in the game, overthrowing open receivers multiple times and ending the game with the most costly of interceptions.

Penalties:  Once again, penalties came back to bite NU, as the 'Cats racked up 6 for 66 yards, including a very costly personal foul on NU's second to last offensive drive that put the Wildcats way behind the chains in their come-from-behind attempt.  Coach Fitz noted this in his postgame comments and promised to fix the discipline issue, even if that means personnel changes.

Fourth Quarter Play:  For a team that's known for its late game heroics, Northwestern has been faltering late in games this season, being outscored 35-60 so far this year (including 3-21 in this game).  Northwestern has done a nice job of putting themselves in a position to win games, either being tied or holding a lead in 23 consecutive games.  Now the 'Cats must find a way to seal the deal, especially when they hold a lead in the final period.

Random Observations

Streak Breaker

Northwestern outrushed Michigan State 170 yards to 105 yards, marking NU's first loss to an opponent to an opponent it outgained on the ground in the last 12 opportunities, dating back to the 2008 loss to Indiana.  Speaking of rushing, Venric Mark's 29 yard end-around run marked the Wildcats' longest run from scrimmage since the 2008 season (NU had hit but never exceeded 25 yard ground gains since that time).


The attendance mark of 41,115 marked the highest attendance at a Northwestern home game not against Ohio State or Michigan since the 2001 tilt against Penn State.  Although MSU brought a large and vocal contingent, NU fans still outnumbered them and were quite involved in the game until the very end.  This year's attendance mark looks to be pretty solid for the Wildcats, with the final true home game against Iowa trending towards a sellout and the mathcup against Illinois at Wrigley Field looking to be a sellout as well (possibly even with standing room only tickets sold, as well).


Once again, NU lost the turnover margin (-1) and the game.  On the year, NU is 3-0 when winning the turnover battle and just 2-2 when having an equal or negative turnover margin.

Final Thought

The 'Cats most definitely lost in disappointing fashion, as they had a big lead early and were unable to close it out with a win against a tough opponent at home.  Now NU must go on the road and face two tough but beat-able teams on their quest to reach bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.

Fortunately, the 'Cats did show some promising signs against Michigan State, including the ability to run the football as well as the ability to stop the run on defense.  NU's kicking game looked more solid, and Venric Mark presents a nice weapon in the return game.  Now the Wildcats must put together a "complete" game, something they haven't really done against top level competition this year, but something that Fitz has been able to get his teams to do down the stretch in prior seasons.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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