Post-Game Analysis: Michigan State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 3-5) were giving the Michigan State Spartans (10-2, 7-1) quite a game into the second quarter, with the score tied at three and NU driving inside of MSU's 10 yard line, but true freshman Treyvon Green fumbled, the Spartans drove 97 yards and scored a touchdown to take a lead that they would not relinquish. Though the 'Cats had plenty of chances to win and fought for most of the game, that fumble really turned the tide, and the back-breaking play was the Keshawn Martin punt return for TD just before the half that reminded Northwestern fans of a very similar situation against Missouri back in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. Also, senior CB Jordan Mabin had to go out early in the game with a shoulder injury, and his replacement, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones was tested and burned often after Mabin went out, allowing MSU to extend their lead back to 14 each time that NU tried to cut back into it.

All in all, it was a disappointing end to a season that featured plenty of down moments for a team that had a lot of experience and potential. Coach Fitzgerald expressed those sentiments in his post-game press conference where he felt disappointment for not helping propel those 25 graduating seniors to a better season. Like in every other loss this year, Northwestern had its chances to win and just couldn't take hold, and instead saw its chances diminish down the stretch, with the game ending by putting in younger players to gain some experience at the expense of a positive sendoff for the seniors.

Now, the 'Cats will begin to prepare for a bowl game which won't be determined until Sunday, December 4, with a lot of variables playing into their potential destination. Although the regular season registers as a large disappointment, they 'Cats did have enough fight to gain bowl eligibility and they'll have a shot to end the bowl drought, which would go a long way towards erasing some of the tougher memories from 2011 while also helping NU secure a winning record for a fourth consecutive season.

First Half Summary

It was a rainy day at Ryan Field, and that figured to give the Wildcats a shot against the Legends Division champ, since, as they say, "weather is the great equalizer." The teams got off to a relatively slow start, with both punting on their first possessions. MSU would strike first as they put together a long 13-play 72-yard drive down to inside the NU 10 yard line, but the 'Cats' D held and forced MSU to settle for a field goal. Northwestern would respond right away, though, with the 'Cats driving down the field on their own methodical 12-play drive that featured a fourth down conversion to get into the red zone, but NU questionably ran the ball on third-and-four (likely expecting an all-out blitz, which MSU did employ often) which set up fourth-and-two, at which point the 'Cats took the points as Jeff Budzien tied the game at thee with his first made FG in four full games.

Next is when the Wildcats looked like they would take control of the game and MSU may have been looking ahead to that upcoming title game: Kirk Cousins was intercepted thanks to a QB hurry from Quentin Williams (one of the few times NU pressured him on the day), setting up the 'Cats at their own 35. NU would then employ a good mix of Dan Persa and Kain Colter at quarterback to systematically move down the field over 14 plays, including three third down conversions and another fourth down conversion. NU had second-and-three at the MSU six yard line with a TD squarely in their sites when what was essentially the play of the game came, the aforementioned Green fumbled at the three, and the huge momentum swing began.

MSU got the ball, and after a couple of runs, they began to go after untested Daniel Jones and were quite successful doing so, highlighted by the 46 yard Cousins to Martin pass against him, which moved them into scoring range and allowed the Spartans to take a lead with the subsequent rushing TD from Le'Veon Bell. With under two minutes left, NU got the ball at their own 24 and looked like they were going to run the clock down with a Jacob Schmidt run on first down. But, NU quickly snapped the ball and Persa was sacked for a loss of eight on second down, a very costly decision, as MSU would take their timeouts to stop the clock and try and get the ball back with NU punting from inside their own 20. And, it worked.

The icing on the cake was the ensuing punt return. Brandon Williams kicked a low rugby-style punt, which was a reasonable coaching decision as they typically bounce and limit returns and the return man may be less likely to field a bouncing ball on such a wet day. But, NU's usually stout punt coverage team seemed to let up on the play, with the ball bouncing short and right to the speedy Martin, waiting at around the 50 yard line. He picked up the 34 yard punt with Northwestern's gunners already being blocked behind him and took off, finding a seam and taking it back 57 yards untouched. To that point, NU had yielded just three net punt return yards on the season, and they picked one of the worst possible times for a letdown. NU got the ball back and promptly took a knee to avoid any other costly mistakes to go into the half trailing 17-3 after holding all the momentum just 5 minutes and 25 seconds earlier in game time.

Second Half Summary

Thankfully, NU won the coin toss and deferred, giving them the ball first to start the second half. The 'Cats would have to score here if they wanted to stay in this one, and this is where the Northwestern seniors' resiliency showed the most. NU's drive did not start off the best way: facing third-and-three at their own 38, Persa completed a nice catch-and-run to Colter, but the play was called back thanks to holding on NU's Ben Burkett. But, the 'Cats came right back with Persa finding a wide open Drake Dunsmore for 69 yards to set up first-and-goal at the three yard line thanks to some broken coverage and a great Persa strike. Two plays later, Persa would find another favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, open in the end zone as he moved to his right to bring NU within seven.

Unfortunately, the defense was not up to the task of holding back the Spartans. Now with a lead and NU on its heels, MSU could employ its favorite mix of ground game and play-action passing while also picking on a cornerback getting his first real playing time at the collegiate level. With the ground game keeping NU's safeties from helping Jones out at corner, Cousins continued to pick on him using his favorite target, BJ Cunningham, who scored they key touchdown on third-and-13 from 33 yards out that he juggled as he ran away from Jones on the way to paydirt. Though the 'Cats would continue to fight, their chances of increasing their Senior Day win streak to eight took a substantial hit after the Spartans went back up by 14.

Northwestern would respond by driving to midfield, but then began what would ultimately end the day: the sacks. On third-and-four, Persa was sacked forcing the 'Cats to punt with time ticking down in the third quarter and MSU salivating at the chance to run out the clock. The last remaining glimmer of hope came as the NU D forced a three-and-out, and NU took the ball and drove down to the MSU 32 and faced fourth-and-six when the fourth quarter began. Persa found his favorite target, Ebert, who scampered for 19 yards and put NU into the red zone with a chance to keep pace. Persa found Demetrius Fields for their third TD connection in as many weeks, and the 'Cats pulled to within 24-17.

Things were looking up for NU after forcing a second-straight three-and-out on defense and getting the punt around midfield thanks to a costly personal foul against the Spartans right after the play. On first down, though, Schmidt essentially tackled an oncoming defender to put NU way behind the chains with a holding penalty, allowing MSU to unleash the pass rush, which got to Persa on second down, leaving the 'Cats facing second-and-29 from their own 34. After holding a great opportunity to possibly tie the game, NU dug themselves in a giant hole. Second down was an incompletion (that was a good downfield pass, but into solid coverage), and third down was a checkdown for just nine yards. The 'Cats were forced to punt, and though it was downed inside the MSU 10 yard line, the 'Cats would have to rely on their iffy defense to get another shot to tie. That shot would not come.

The next drive was the icing on the cake, and was all Cousins, who went 4-of-4 for 65 yards and a TD on the drive (with 2 other passes going for first downs and another pass interference penalty); that touchdown would give him the MSU record for TD passes and the Spartans would hold a 31-17 lead with NU virtually out of time as just 5:17 remained on the clock. The 'Cats' last gasp drive didn't start that well with Venric Mark having trouble fielding the ball and returning it just 13 yards to the 24 yard line. MSU could then pin its collective ears back and all-out blitz Persa. NU was lucky to even put much of a drive together, facing fourth down at their own 33, but Persa would pick it up with MSU also getting called for a personal foul helmet-to-helmet hit on Persa. The 'Cats would then move down inside the red zone thanks to a nice 31 yard Persa pass to Rashad Lawrence over the middle, but the MSU pass rush would then pay huge dividends without having to defend against the vertical pass: MSU sacked Persa on three of the next four plays, and he was hurried on the other play: an incompletion.

MSU got the ball back, handed off to Edwin Baker, picked up a first down, and ran enough clock (2:28) to completely end NU's chances. Trevor Siemian came in to close out the game, and the clock expired on NU's regular season after a checkdown pass to Schmidt.

Player of the Game

MSU QB Kirk Cousins (14-of-20 passing for 214 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 4 carries for 25 yards) Cousins didn't have a huge day, but completed 70% of his passes and responded to both NU touchdowns with paydirt tosses to BJ Cunningham to set the school record for career TD passes. He also had a respectable day with his feet, running for 25 net yards and picking up a couple of big third downs with his legs (somewhat out of character, given that he came in with -90 net yards on the ground for the year). He showed his leadership with those two second-half TD drives with the 'Cats looking to seize momentum both times and MSU possibly ready to pack it in and rest up for next week, but Cousins rallied the troops and exploited NU's most glaring defensive weakness to kill NU's chances.

What Happened

"They can also make hay on special teams, ranking 15th in kickoff returns while their placekicker has hit 82.4% of FG tries for his career. They have already secured the division title and will certainly be seeking momentum heading into the championship game; they've won three straight and are looking to make that four before packing their bags for Indy.

Special teams was a big difference-maker in the game, with Martin's huge punt return for TD right before the half further tipping the game in favor of the Spartans, allowing them to play to their strengths down the stretch. And, they didn't pack it in during the game, instead keeping many key players out there down the stretch to secure the win and playing like they really did want that 10th victory that likely won't mean much except on the stats sheet.

"The key will be protecting Persa when he does drop back to pass as the number of sacks has been a harbinger of the game's result so far this season for Northwestern.

Northwestern decidedly failed to protect Persa, especially in the second half when NU essentially played into MSU's hand by getting down by 14, bringing up many clear passing situations and allowing the Spartans to blitz without abandon. Earlier in the game, the 'Cats were successfully controlling the football and held momentum, all until that crucial red zone fumble loss that ceded momentum to MSU. Through the second half, the Spartans blitzed Persa like crazy, accumulating six sacks on the day (4 coming from blitzers) and another 2 QB hurries (also from a non-defensive lineman).

"the 'Cats cannot afford to let MSU run away with a lead with the potential for big play action off of that. The 'Cats must contain the run while also putting pressure on the QB, and that means that the secondary will have to play some of the best coverage that they've done all year."

Unfortunately, Northwestern once again played right into MSU's hand by getting into a 14-point hole right before halftime, putting that much more pressure on the D in the second half. Though the defense held at times, they ultimately couldn't completely shut down the Spartans' play-action attack, with MSU exploiting single coverage on its best receiver, Cunningham, who was on a completely inexperienced backup player much of the day thanks to the loss of NU's best CB due to an early injury.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (23-of-32 passing for 245 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs; 6 carries for 26 yards after removing sacks) Persa certainly went out fighting despite the fact that he was being chased and pressured for much of the day with unblocked rushers coming at him on a regular basis. Despite that along with the physical MSU defensive line just out-playing NU's experienced OL many times, he completed 71.8% of his passes, avoided any turnovers, and kept the 'Cats in the game with two second-half TD tosses. Fortunately, he'll have one more game to play and can write himself into the NU record books by leading NU to that elusive bowl victory.

What to Work on

Defensive Depth

The Wildcat held their own against the Spartans' explosive offense for much of the game, but in the end it was depth at defensive back that did in the 'Cats. When their best CB Jordan Mabin went down, NU had to turn to redshirt freshman Daniel Jones in his first significant playing time, and he was picked on and burned multiple times. NU already had to rotate in various options at the other CB spot, and when Mabin went down, they essentially were left with no reliable options at corner. Going forward, one hopes the coaching staff sees the glaring need to bring in talented cornerbacks as Mabin and Matthews are both gone next season, leaving the 'Cats with precious little experience and bodies at that key position.

Avoiding Big Plays

NU is best served by making opponents earn their victories, which was best demonstrated in Lincoln earlier this month where the Cornhuskers managed just two 20+ yard plays against the 'Cats (both passes). In this game, NU allowed six such plays on defense while also allowing a 57 yard punt return for TD. All of those allowed the Spartans to keep NU at bay for the rest of the game. Another huge play was NU's costly fumble, which gave way to the Spartans' go-ahead score; NU was coming off of MSU's only turnover of the day and could have held a significant advantage with a touchdown lead there. Instead, MSU erased that chance and made a huge play of their own (the 46 yard pass) on their way to hitting paydirt.


Though NU fought well through much of the game, what really began to show on NU's final drive is MSU's flat out physical play. NU was smaller on both sides of the ball and eventually lost battles on both sides, but most glaringly on offense where the Spartans chose to blitz and put pressure on Persa continuously, and they were quite successful at doing so. Though many on the NU OL are experienced and highly touted, they couldn't hold back the tide and eventually allowed the MSU pass rush to kill NU's chance at a win.

Random Observations


Attendance was listed as a relatively high 32,172, though I'm sure the actual number of people at the game was far lower thanks to very few students in town and many MSU fans saving their road trip fund for next week's championship tilt in Indianapolis. But, with that official number, Northwestern's home season average attendance came in at 33,442, the second-highest number under Fitz and the second-highest average since 2001 (last year's was 36,449). It will be interesting to see if the 'Cats can improve on those numbers with a unique schedule next year: four September home games, but with three against BCS AQ competition (Vanderbilt, Boston College, and Indiana), along with tilts against well-traveling Nebraska and Iowa on back-to-back weeks in October. That adds up to seven home games, which they had last in 2009 (but included decidedly less desirable opposition).


Continuing the trend, NU has now lost all 6 games during which they yielded more than two sacks while winning all 6 during which they allowed 2 or fewer. The Wildcats have allowed an average of 1.2 sacks per game in those 6 wins compared to 4.5 in their losses.


Michigan State certainly had their share of penalties (8 for 66 yards), with some definitely giving NU an advantage (back-to-back offside calls and a couple of personal fouls), but unfortunately the 'Cats also put themselves at a disadvantage with 6 for 70 yards just a week after getting zero flags. Some of the calls that put NU behind the chains (e.g. holding) really came back to hurt NU as it put them in even more obvious passing situations, allowing MSU to rush without abandon.

Bowl Positioning

The loss all but put NU out of contention for the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, which likely would have been as far as NU could have climbed up the bowl ladder. But, the 'Cats were assisted by Michigan's win over Ohio State, which puts the Wolverines in strong contention for an at-large BCS bid (assuming at least two teams fall behind them in the BCS standings with losses this weekend). An at-large placement would open up another Big Ten affiliated bowl slot and would leave just one Big Ten team fighting for an at-large spot. That team will likely be Illinois, who lost on Saturday to drop to 6-6 and is riding a six game losing streak, the first time an FBS team has followed 6 wins with 6 losses within a season. With that and the firing of Ron Zook, they are certainly the least desirable Big Ten bowl team. Also at 6-6 are Ohio State and Purdue, but OSU will be snatched up by one of the higher tier bowls, and a bowl like the TicketCity would gladly take Purdue, who is bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 and whose fan base will be ready to hit the road (and with NU likely to repeat bowl locations in back-to-back years with an underwhelming showing last season). This, therefore, puts the 'Cats into strong contention for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, which many pundits are currently projecting as the 'Cats' bowl destination. The official announcement will come on December 4.

Final Thought

The game was close at times, but ultimately three details cost NU the game: the momentum-changing fumble within arm's length of the end zone, the punt return for TD allowed just before the half, and the loss of Jordan Mabin for much of the game with an injury. Though the Wildcats stayed true to their name by trying to fight back multiple times in the second half, those three details continued to haunt the 'Cats and allowed MSU to play to their strengths and ride out a win on their way to Indy.

Though it was a disappointment, Northwestern will have one more chance to send off its seniors with a W and make up for some of the down parts of this season by preparing for and hopefully, finally, winning a bowl game. The Wildcats looked to be down and out midway through the year but did enough to fight back and gain bowl eligibility, and that will give them a chance to try and win game number seven and send out those 25 seniors in style on a neutral field.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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