Post-Game Analysis: Michigan State
by Jonathan Hodges


Despite the "Purple Haze" and a solid crowd in Ryan Field on a great day for college football, Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) handed Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) its first loss of the season by a final score of 37-20.  Essentially, the game all came down to the first quarter and 17 initial points from the Spartans - all off of drives beginning in NU territory; after that, NU and MSU traded scores until the final score.  And the stat of the game was turnovers: NU had three and MSU converted all three into points (17, to be exact), while the Spartans did not turn the ball over.  Add in some poor special teams coverage team play for the 'Cats, and that's the ballgame.

The defense basically did what it was trying to do: stop Ringer.  The MSU RB had 35 carries for 124 yards with a long run of only 13 yards, but he had 2 TDs on the day and helped MSU move the chains on many short yardage situations.  The real hero of the game was MSU QB Hoyer, who responded in a big way and went 14 of 20 for 2 TDs and no INTs and helped the Spartans build an insurmountable lead.  According to the statistics, NU's D did a reasonably good job, giving up a total of 297 yards and holding them to 7 of 15 on 3rd down conversions; the DL also added a couple of sacks and some hurries against a very good pass blocking OL.  But due to very favorable starting position on multiple drives for MSU, it didn't matter as the Spartans got points on the board and went 6-6 in the red zone with 4 TDs.

On the other side of the ball, the Northwestern offense put up a ton of yards, 459 on the day, and Sutton had a very good day with 139 yards on the ground and another 44 through the air (including a 66 yard run), but it was the 2 interceptions by Bacher in the first half that really killed the 'Cats' chances.  The icing on the cake was the interception in the end zone as NU looked to cut the defecit to 3, which was followed by an 80 yard TD drive to put MSU back up by 17 at the half.  The 'Cats showed that they could put together some long, methodical drives, but MSU answered every score that NU put on the board.  The day was capped by an incomplete pass into the end zone from the 6 yard line with NU looking to put some more points on the board to obtain a more respectable score.  Unfortunately, that pass was broken up as CJ threw, as he was running backwards to avoid the pass rush.  The most troubling part of the offense, though, was the lack of big plays (except for the Sutton run, which set up a TD); as NU was eating up the clock on long drives in the second half, MSU was getting closer and closer to sealing the win, since the 'Cats weren't able to get that quick strike to get back into the game.  Credit the banged-up MSU secondary (without one starter and with their best safety shuttling in and out of the game, due to an injury) for keeping NU's receivers in front of them and severely limiting NU's big play potential.

The worst part of the day for NU, though, was special teams.  MSU averaged almost 30 yards per kickoff return, and Demos was kicking the ball unusually short with the 'Cats eventually settling for the infamous pooch kick to try and minimize the return.  The gaffes began with a McManis fumble on a kick return early in the game that gave MSU the ball deep in NU territory where they kicked a FG for a 10-0 lead.  On the ensuing kickoff, McManis mishandled the kick and got the ball out only to the 5 yard line, with that drive resulting in an INT just 5 plays later, giving MSU great field position.  He was taken off kick returns in favor of Matthews, who had 3 returns for 71 yards, including a 40 yarder.  The next biggest gaffe was NU deciding to go for an onside kick in the 3rd quarter after scoring a TD on the opening drive of the quarter (which cut the MSU lead to 24-14) - actually, I am unsure if it was supposed to be an onside kick or a pooch kick because it never touched the ground and went airborne just about 15 yards.  NU's hands team made a grave mistake by jumping for the ball (since it didn't hit the ground); MSU's closest player called for the fair catch, and although NU came away with the ball, they were called for fair catch interference, a 15 yard penalty from the spot of the foul - the result was MSU with the ball on the Northwestern 32 yard line: basically a free FG (they would take it in for a TD to once again answer NU).  Of course to add insult to injury, NU was also flagged for a false start on that play.

On the day, the Spartans started drives in NU territory 4 times and converted those opportunities into 3 TDs and a FG; MSU's other TD on the day came off of an INT.  So, MSU didn't have to go very far to score; on the flipside, NU's best field position was starting on their own 40.  EIGHT times, the 'Cats were on or inside their own 20 to start a drive.  One can't expect to win a game with a -3 turnover margin in addition to big special teams plays going in the other team's favor, and one cannot also expect to win after getting in a 17-0 hole in the first quarter.  It was a winnable game for the 'Cats, and both the offense and defense had respectable games, but those big plays just tipped the scales in MSU's favor.  Some may lay excuses on the table, like the bye week, but the fact is that Northwestern's mistakes really hurt themselves, and MSU took advantage of every one of the 'Cats' mistakes and used that to propel themselves to victory.

Player of the Game: MSU QB Brian Hoyer (14-20 for 169 yards passing, 2 TDs, 0 INTs).  With NU's defense squarely focused on stopping Ringer, Hoyer had to step up, and he did, in an extremely efficient and solid performance as he propeled the Spartans to the win.  Although Ringer did have 124 yards and 2 TDs on the ground, it was Hoyer who made the passes that converted NU's miscues into points and sealed the win.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
- RB Tyrell Sutton (23 carries for 139 yards (6.0 ypc), 6 receptions for 44 yards)  Sutton had another great day, outgaining Ringer on the ground, as he ripped off a 66 yard run to set up an NU TD early in the 3rd quarter, dispelling any rumors of further injury to Tyrell.  But, with NU looking for big plays to try and get back in the game, Sutton didn't get a lot of carries later in the game.
- WR Ross Lane (9 receptions for 113 yards)  Lane had quite a few yards on the day, including some nice catches and moves after the catch.
- Offensive Line: One can't fault the OL for the loss; this unit allowed only one sack on the day despite Bacher dropping back an astounding 61 times to throw.  And they did a solid job run blocking, too, as NU had a 5.5 ypc average on the ground.  This unit continues to improve and has additional depth with Mattes back available, although NU mostly had Taylor in at RT with Bartels taking the RG position.  The OL has now turned into a strength of this offense and should put the 'Cats in a good position moving forward.  Also, C Burkett did a much better job keeping his snaps consistent after high snaps throughout the first 5 games; it is obvious that this was worked on during the bye and his snaps were much better and more consistent.
- S Brad Phillips (14 tackles, 0.5 TFL) Phillips helped in containing Ringer while also making some TD-saving tackles (like on a quick pass out to the WR that Mabin was unable to contain himself).  He has shown solid speed and great hitting power and is a key contributor to this defensive squad.
- LB Prince Kwateng (11 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry)  Kwateng contributed by putting pressure in the backfield and helping to contain Ringer.  He was in on a lot of stops and is another key factor to the NU D.

What to Work On:
- Special Teams (especially kick/punt coverage):  Kickoffs and punts killed NU; MSU averaged almost 30 yards per return on kickoffs and had only one punt return on the day which went for 20 yards.  This part of the game killed the 'Cats, giving MSU great field position multiple times.  And Demos had trouble getting a lot of distance on his kickoffs, forcing the 'Cats to resort to the short pooch kick.  Then there was the aforementioned onside attempt that was a huge swing in field position.  On returns, NU had a couple of nice returns by Conteh and Matthews (34 and 40 yards, respectively), but they more than made up for those on the negative side with the McManis fumble and the mishandled kickoff that gave NU the ball at its own 5.  Ball security is key on the return teams, Demos must improve the yardage on kickoffs, and the coverage teams must get down the field, shed blocks, and make tackles.  This should be the biggest point of emphasis this week.
- QB CJ Bacher: Once again, CJ's 2 INTs killed the 'Cats: his two interceptions were converted to MSU TDs, and the one he threw into the end zone totally swung the momentum.  NU had a chance to cut the defecit to 3, but instead the INT follwed by TD put NU back down by 17.  On both of his interceptions, CJ was facing moderate pressure but had time to either tuck and run or throw the ball away.  Instead, he forced the ball into the middle of the field both times and was easily caught by a member of the Spartan secondary.  While his decision making was solid at times, these gaffes hurt the 'Cats' chances big time.
- Play Calling: On what was arguably one of NU's most successful sustained drives of the day, their only TD drive of the first half, there were two designed CJ Bacher runs, one of which went for 18 yards (which was actually longer than any run by MSU's Ringer on the day).  The reason this worked so well is that MSU was only keeping 2 LBs behind their DL on most plays, with the other split out to assist in coverage.  Also, their safeties always dropped into coverage when it wasn't a running play.  This left little coverage in the middle of the field near the LOS, giving a perfect cushion for the QB to run if a hole opened.  And if a team is going to run a spread attack like NU's, the designed QB run is essential to keep the defense honest; outside of that one drive, though, MSU's D was not honest and was able to drop a ton of guys back in coverage - hence why NU's big play potential was limited and CJ often could not find an open man.  More designed QB runs throughout the game would help, and CJ has shown the ability to secure the football and run for solid gains, so this should be mixed in more often.
- Pass Defense against Running Teams: Over the past 2 games, NU has shown a vulnerability to the passing attack against primarily running teams.  The 'Cats' biggest success aganst Iowa was when the Hawkeyes were forced into throwing-only situations in a comeback attempt (MSU never got even close to such a situation, leading by at least two scores almost the entire game).  But while NU was focused on stopping the run, Hoyer led an efficient passing attack, finding the open man quite often, whether it was a TE, FB, or WR.  The most frustrating situation was probably the quick pass to the outside WR, one of those plays going for 42 yards (the actual pass was caught at the LOS) - which was possible since NU had its safeties lined up near the middle of the formation and the CB was way off the LOS.  Credit the MSU OL for generally good pass protection which gave receivers the chance to get open, but the NU secondary definitely showed signs of weakness after a very good first 4 games.

Random Observations:
- Attendance:  I was impressed with the crowd that showed up for the game, and although it was listed at 32,527, it looked like a good amount more than that, and a good number were indeed 'Cats fans, although one couldn't tell because there wasn't much to cheer about for most of the game.  Hopefully the loss does not drive fans away; next week's game against Purdue brings up another vital Big Ten matchup, and also brings homecoming for NU - a big crowd would definitely be a boost to this 5-1 team.
- Road Team: In the NU-MSU series, the road team has won the last 4 meetings (after the series picked back up in 2005).  This year's matchup was probably the least exciting, though.
- Big Ten Pecking Order: MSU used the game as an opportunity to establish themselves as a Big Ten contender - and have a giant test against OSU next week.  Meanwhile, NU fell back to earth a bit but still have a solid 5-1, 1-1 record heading into a key stretch of games (Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota).  The middle of the pack in the conference is very muddy with Minnesota upsetting Illinois in Champaign and Iowa clobbering Indiana.  Also, don't count out Purdue who is coming off of tough consecutive games against PSU and OSU.  PSU has established themselves as the class of the conference with a big win in Madison, but have to travel to Michigan before a huge matchup against Ohio State.
- Swing Points: "Swing points" (i.e. points off turnovers) made all the difference in this game, as mentioned earlier.  MSU had 17 points off of its 3 gained turnovers, and had SIX scoring drives of 42 yards or less.  Meanwhile, NU's shortest scoring drive was 60 yards (and the 'Cats had a 92 yard drive for naught, which was the closing drive of the game).  You can't win football games when you are in situations like that.

Final Thought:

Although it was a disappointing game, the errors that put NU behind early are all correctable: hold onto the ball during kickoffs, make better passing decisions, and cover kicks better (all of which NU has shown the ability to do) - and it's a whole new ballgame.  While NU's offense has had some trouble making the big plays, it did show that it can move the ball and put points on the board, gathering 459 total yards on the day.  The defense had one of its worst outings of the year but wasn't exactly put in a favorable position, as it had to defend starting in its own territory 5 times; what it did do, though, was contain the run (Ringer's longest run was 13 yards, and he averaged only 3.5 ypc.  This loss could prove valuable to the Wildcats IF they can translate these gaffes into learning lessons and can improve going into a key 3 game stretch against Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota.  Now is the chance to see if this past game can motivate NU and if the coaches and players can make the right adjustments to develop and get better as this season progresses.

Look for a first half evaluation later this week - it's hard to believe the 2008 season is already half over and NU has only one loss.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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