Post-Game Analysis: Michigan State
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern (4-3, 1-2) dropped their third game of the 2009 season in East
Lansing to the Spartans (4-3, 3-1) thanks to a few miscues and a solid day from
MSU QB Kirk Cousins (281 passing yards, 2 TDs, no turnovers) by a final score of
24-14. The Wildcats' senior WR and former walk-on Zeke
Markshausen had a career day with 16 catches for 111 yards and a score, but it
wasn't enough to put Northwestern on top.
Michigan State looked to go up
early with a drive down to the Northwestern 1 yard line, but the NU defense held
on fourth and goal and kept the Spartans off of the scoreboard. The Wildcats
struck first, with a Mike Kafka to Andrew Brewer passing touchdown in the second
quarter (Brewer's fourth receiving TD of the season).
Then with the
Spartans driving and time winding down in the first half, NU recovered a fumble
and ran out the clock to go into the locker room with a 7-0 lead after another
solid defensive effort. Unfortunately, NU was not able to sustain their first
MSU came out in the second half and scored on their first
four possessions, putting the ball in the end zone three times and racking up
217 of their 375 yards of total offense on those four drives. That put the
Wildcats in a 24-7 hole early in the fourth quarter, and without any explosion
plays going in their favor, the 'Cats weren't able to dig out of
Without the ability to run the ball effectively and with the
offensive line unable to hold back the tide, Northwestern had to resort to the
short passing game, which was successful at times, but not consistent enough to
propel NU to victory.
The turning point of the day likely came in the
third quarter, with NU driving to about the MSU 30 yard line on the first drive
of the second half. SB Drake Dunsmore caught the ball with enough yards for a
first down when he was stood up and pushed backwards by a gang of MSU tacklers
who stripped the ball and recovered it.
The play was likely one that
could have been whistled dead for forward progress, but Dunsmore did not hold
onto the football. The Spartans took the opportunity to tie the game and never
looked back, racking up 24 unanswered points.
The NU defense looked
strong throughout the first half, coming up with that huge goal line start on
the first drive of the game, and grabbing another takeaway before the half to
keep MSU off the scoreboard, but they would not have a pretty third
Although the 'Cats contained the Michigan State ground game,
allowing just 94 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry, the Spartans were
allowed to do most of their damage through the air.
QB Kirk Cousins had
an excellent day, going 21-of-31 for 281 yards and 2 TDs through the air,
including a 47 yard strike to WR Blair White, which came on blown coverage by
the usually dependable senior NU CB Sherrick McManis.
This, like the
'Cats' other two losses on the year, was one where NU had a chance, but let a
couple of mistakes put them in a hole from which they couldn't dig out. The
offense put together some nice drives, but was generally too inconsistent to put
the Wildcats on top. And turnovers ended up playing a big part, as NU had a -1
turnover margin, while MSU scored 14 of their points off of NU
Although this loss puts Northwestern in a precarious spot in
the battle for a bowl berth, they will have a chance to turn it around next week
at home against a struggling Indiana squad.
MSU QB Kirk Cousins (21-of-31 passing for 281
yards and 2 TDs) Cousins did what he needed to do to pull off the win with
the Wildcats effectively neutralizing the Spartans' run game for most of the
day. Cousins had a lot of help from the offensive line, though, which didn't
allow a sack and never really allowed any NU defender to get close to him all
day long. During MSU's four scoring possessions to start the second half,
Cousins went 10-of-14 and racked up 162 of his passing yards on the
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
Markshausen (16 catches for 111 yards and 1 TD receiving) The former
walk-on caught his first collegiate TD and had a career day, ending up just one
reception short of the NU record for most in a single game. With NU's running
game once again once again being shut down, the Wildcats relied on him in the
short passing game to make up for the lack of the ground game.
Andrew Brewer (8 catches for 104 yards and 1 TD receiving) After relatively
quiet games over the past two weeks, Brewer was vital for the NU passing attack,
particularly in the middle of the field. His TD in the second quarter put the
'Cats on top, and he had some important catches in the middle of the field to
sustain other drives.
QB Mike Kafka (34-of-47 passing for 291 yards
and 2 TDs, 15 rushes for 57 yards) With the running game struggling, Kafka
was NU's only option on offense, and he put up solid numbers and did not turn
the ball over on the day. He eluded pressure time after time and bought the
'Cats second chances more than once against the Spartans' D.
What to Work on:
Line: There were no holes to run through (even without sacks, NU averaged a
measly 3.6 yards per carry, with the longest run from an NU RB, 18 yards from
Stephen Simmons, coming on a meaningless play just before halftime. Then there
is pass protection, where they yielded three sacks, two QB hurries, and numerous
other times that Kafka eluded a sack with his legs.
Despite a desire to run the football, NU just has not been able to do so, and
much of that is thanks to poor blocking up front. The NU running backs haven't
built any confidence, though, with Simmons being NU's only effective runner on
the year. He had a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, but had only five rushes on
Limiting Big Plays: Yes, starting S Brendan Smith was
out with an injured hand, but there was no excuse for the blown coverage on
MSU's 47 yard TD, and Smith's replacement, Jared Carpenter, didn't get enough
depth on a 22 yard MSU TD pass. Oh, and the tackling woes continued, especially
evident on Larry Caper's 22 yard TD scamper that effectively put the game out of
reach for the 'Cats.
Special Teams: With the special teams making
big plays over the past two games, they disappointed in this one, including
turning the ball over on a kickoff return that MSU promptly turned into seven
points. P/K Stefan Demos averaged a measly 32.5 yards per punt, punt returner
Hunter Bates muffed a ball that he thankfully recovered, and the 'Cats allowed a
47 yard kick return to start the game.
Line of Scrimmage Battles: MSU clearly came up
on top when comparing the play of the teams' lines. The offensive line yielded
no sacks, while their DL sacked Kafka three times and put pressure on him many
more times while easily containing the NU run game. Yes, NU's defensive front
kept the MSU run game in check but could never put enough pressure on Cousins to
keep MSU from torching NU through the air.
Red Zone Defense:
Amazingly, the NU D did admirably in the red zone, allowing just one score in
three chances for MSU, with the only score being a field goal. Unfortunately,
MSU's had three touchdowns that came from outside of the red
Third Down Conversions: NU converted half of its 16 third
downs on the day, but in the end had way too many of them, losing the ball on
downs twice and punting the ball six more times. Although MSU went just 5-of-14
on third downs, they had the benefit of six plays that went 20 yards or longer
(compared to just one for NU).
was a big downer for NU's bowl hopes as the 'Cats have just two "win-able" games
remaining on their schedule: the dates against Indiana and Illinois.
Northwestern must win those two games to reach bowl eligibility and needs to win
at least one more to guarantee themselves a bowl berth. Unfortunately, the
other three games are against teams that are a combined 16-2 going into the
But before worrying about that, the 'Cats must re-focus and face a
struggling Indiana squad next week for homecoming that provides a perfect
Previous jhodges commentary