Northwestern came into Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State considerably better than its 1–3 record would indicate.
In two of their three losses, the Wildcats had blown double-digit leads, including a 17–0 cushion last week against Michigan and an 18-point margin in an inexplicable home loss to Akron.
Against Sparty, Northwestern once again jumped out to a first-half lead and this time hung on to win, 29–19, in East Lansing, beating Michigan State for the third straight time and seriously damaging the Spartans' Big Ten hopes in the process.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was basically the entire offense, throwing for 373 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The Wildcats didn’t dare to run against the Spartans, which came into the game leading the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 40 yards per game and 1.49 yards per rush.
The Wildcats, which rank 123rd nationally in rushing yards per game, gained only eight yards on the ground all day on 20 carries.
Michigan State played without star running back L.J. Scott, who has been dealing with an ankle injury most of the season, and left tackle Kevin Jarvis, and again struggled to find a running game, gaining 96 yards. Forty-eight of those yards came on a touchdown run by receiver Felton Davis III, which cut Northwestern’s lead to two early in the third quarter.
The Spartans took their only lead of the game when Brian Lewerke hooked up with Davis, who finished with seven catches for 96 yards, on a three-yard scoring pass late in the third. Lewerke finished with 329 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
The lack of a killer instinct in the second half that has plagued Northwestern so far this season went away with its next drive, when it converted two crucial third downs as part of a nine-play, 75-yard drive and took the lead for good on a 21-yard pass from Thorsen to Cameron Green.
Although Lewerke was sacked only twice on his 51 pass attempts, he was pressured often in the second half, leading to long down and distances for the offense. The Spartans went 4 for 15 on third downs Saturday.
A fourth-down attempt from their own 10-yard line with four minutes to go failed when running back Connor Heyward was hit behind the line, and Thorsen’s one-yard quarterback sneak three plays later sealed the deal for the Wildcats.
Michigan State hadn’t gained anyone’s confidence in its three victories this season, struggling to find a running game and not playing consistent enough on offense.
While the defense is Big Ten championship caliber, the Spartans' season of promise can easily turn sour in the next few weeks. Next Saturday, they travel to Happy Valley to play Penn State, followed by their annual clash with in-state rival Michigan.
Suddenly, a potential major bowl bid is looking more like a seven-win season, and that’s if they beat Purdue and Maryland.