"Same Old Spartans": MSU Falls Behind 17-0, Refuses to Quit, and Pulls out Another Comeback “W” for the Ages over Northwestern, 35-27

Jonathan Schopp

The Spartans rolled into Evanston at top ten team and left a potential top five squad.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.
The Spartans rolled into Evanston at top ten team and left a potential top five squad. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

After a wet and sloppy start in Evanston, the Spartans looked down and out to a rested and ready Northwestern football team. Yet the 2010 Spartans, led by Captain Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Jr. QB), came all the way back from the 17 point hole to win by 8, and ripped the football heart out of what would’ve been an otherwise hard fought and well earned Wildcat Homecoming victory. That’s a 25 point swing in the final 36:07 of play if you're scoring at home. And the Spartans won the 4th Quarter 21-3, thus kept their perfect mark (8-0, 4-0) into the last weekend of October. Another victory in Evanston, and another All-Time Spartan comeback for the ages.

The better team won today, though the Wildcats were impressive, and threw absolutely everything they had at the Spartans. Credit the Northwestern Wildcat program for successfully utilizing their bye week. They were rested, poised, and very prepared for the 7-0 Spartans. NU was sharp, and featured looks on Offense and Defense the Spartans had not yet seen in 2010. That's why they got up 17. Pat Fitzgerald clearly had his group “coached up” and ready to go.

The Wildcats won the battle of the lines for much of the day, clearly owning the 1st half on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Spartans couldn’t move the ball early on 3rd downs, couldn’t audible out of situations when they needed to, and couldn’t break the big-momentum-building play. Defensively, they were a step short on a few tackles that would’ve kept NU drives restrained, didn’t get a controversial turnover break to go their way, and also helped the Cats capture the momentum by beating themselves with a few penalties, and an early turnover. Overall, they took it to the Spartans early and out played MSU, sending MSU quickly-to-their-heels, and down more than 2 scores.

The key stretch of the 1st Half came deep in the 2nd Quarter as the Spartans began to threaten the Wildcat Red Zone, down 10-0. After an impressive 3rd and 7 audible call at the line by Cousins on the NU 31, he found Keith Nichol (Rs.-Jr. WR) for the 1st down to move the Spartans to the NU 21. But after a 2 yard run, and 2nd down incompletion, MSU faced another 3rd and long at a very key point on a slippery and wet Ryan Field.

This time, Nichol couldn’t pull it in for the 1st, on a well defended play by a then over achieving NU Defense. MSU needed points, and Dan Conroy (So. PK) had been perfect for the season up to that point. But you could see this was hardly the easiest kick he had faced all year. Kicking from the “off” hash mark for a Right footer, on a slippery field, at a respectable distance of 38 yards, the Spartan Nation knew before the snap that this was far from a safe bet. The snap was a bit off, the timing was a bit off, and the kick was just barely off. The Spartans best drive of the day had come up with no points, and the Wildcats then had a terrific chance to take the game over.

79 yards and 2:35 later, NU got to the MSU end zone and established their largest lead of the day at 17-0, with 6:08 left in the 2nd Quarter. At that point, the difference between 17-0, and either 10-3 or 10-7, appeared far too much to overcome. But remember, these are the new “Same Old Spartans.”

At half time, the numbers were all purple. NU held a 265 to180 edge in yards gained. And shockingly, the hapless ground game of the Cats somehow found 112 yards on the sloppy turf, to MSU’s 50. NU picked up 14 1st downs for the half, and went a very fine 5 for 8 on 3rd down conversions. 3rd down momentum seems to build upon itself throughout a game, for better or worse. It hardly ever seems to reverse direction over the course of a game.

The 2nd half started all Green. Kevin Muma (Rs.-Fr. K) boomed the opening kick out of the NU end zone. The Spartans sent the Wildcats off the field “3 and out,” and only 3 plays and 1:20 later, it was all of the sudden just 17-14 Cats after a silky smooth 22 yard “end around” to Bennie Fowler (Rs.-Fr. WR) for 6. The Half Time “wake-up call” and adjustments had arrived. The heavily Green and White Evanston crowd was back in it.

The Spartans again forced NU “3 and out,” to get the ball back with a chance to take the lead. But MSU gained only a yard on that series, and punted back to NU for what looked to be the pivotal drive of the 2nd Half. NU took the ball from their own 20 and went 80 yards in 15-Dan Persa (Sr. QB) driven plays to drive the Northwestern lead back up to 10, 24-10. Better, the Cats burned a big chuck of clock (5:22) for a Spread team, and firmly gained back the momentum they had lost at the start of the 3rd Quarter.

The ball, and Spartans’ undefeated fate, was back primarily in the hands of Captain Kirk Cousins from there. A 10 point comeback with only 16:00 or so left in the ball game was not going to be led by the once again stymied BBC. It was going to come from the air game, or it wasn’t going to come at all.

On a 4th and 6 with 13:56 to go, the Spartans stood on the NU 31 facing another tough decision. Factoring in the wind, MSU had to choose between a Field Goal try that would’ve played at least 55 yards, going for it as an Offense, or trying to drop a punt inside the NU 15.

MSU made the prudent and percentage play by punting, errrrr, faking it again! It turns out, Aaron Bates (Sr. P) had a “lil something” for Wildcats called “Mouse Trap.” Bates has now thrown the two most important passes of 2010 season. Maybe he was a valuable recruit to the inaugural Dantonio recruiting class of 2007 after all ;).

Bates took the Alex Shackelton (Rs.-Sr.) snap and looked to his right for a streaking Bennie Fowler. Fowler got position on the NU punt coverage, and pulled it in for the 16 yard, 1st down gain. The Cats' took the cheese. One play, and an energy drink’s boost of Spartan momentum later, Cousins found Dell for a 15 yard TD, and the Spartans cut it back to 24-21, NU.

After Persa led the next Wildcat drive all the way down to the MSU 11, Tyler Hoover (So. DE) and Jerel Worthy (So. DT) drove the Spartan rush for two consecutive Persa sacks; a loss of 3 and 10 yards respectively. NU had to settle for a 41 yard, downwind Field Goal to extend the lead to 27-21. The ball was back in Cousins hands. But time seemed to be running out on the season's perfect record.

On the ensuing 3rd and 2, Mark Dell came across the middle, but had an Official in his way. Unsure exactly what to do, Dell tried to cut in front of the Zebra just as he tried to move out of Dell’s way, in the same direction. The result was that the dependable timing between Cousins and Dell had been effectively disrupted. The ball was too far ahead of the detoured Dell. The Spartans had to punt it back, down 10, with less than 10:00 to play.

But MSU got the ball back after another “3 and out” from the strengthening MSU D. With 7:18 left, Cousins led the Spartans' shot for the go ahead score from his own 12 yard line. On a 3rd and 15 from the NU 44, Cousins found Nichol again (4 catches for 51 huge yards on the day) to set up a 4th and 1. With only about 3:00 left, MSU had to have the 1st. Cousins calmly found Charlie Gantt (Sr. TE) for the drive extender to keep the undefeated Spartan hopes alive. Of Gantt’s catches in 2010, only one so far was more important (“Little Giants”).

After an Edwin “Rock” Baker screen pass for 13 yards, Cousins found B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Jr. WR) for a 9 yard TD. And what a catch it was. Throw this one into the reel of All-Time Spartan greats. Cunningham managed to collect the tipped and bobbling ball on his way down to the ground, kept it from hitting the ground, and somehow managing the control to secure the tie at 26. After a Conroy PAT, the Spartans had come all the way back to lead 27-26, but 2 potentially long minutes remained.

The Spartan crowd in Evanston had again seen another memorable comeback, but knew it wasn’t over yet. 2:00 for the NU Offense is probably enough to score more than once, on a slow day. And with the wind at the Wildcat’s back, the field was already playing 5-10 yards shorter for the home team in Purple.

Starting after the kick at their own 33, NU shot themselves in the foot hard with a killer 15-yard personal foul penalty. Though it was instantly softened by a 5-yard Offsides call on Jerel Worthy, the Wildcats struggled to move it at all from there. The Spartan Defense stopped them cold. MSU got very effective pressure from Worthy on that 3rd and 12, who pushed the Wildcats’ Offensive Guard straight back into Persa, and forced a tough and hopeless throw. On 4th and 12, Persa over threw his receiver badly and turned it over the Spartans on downs. The Spartan D had completed another game changing stretch of the 2010 season.

Two Rock Baker runs later, the Spartans faced a 3rd and 4 from the NU 25 with 1:14 left. Instead of just grinding out the necessary 4 yards, Baker took the hand-off and ran through more than a couple Wildcat defenders all the way to the end zone, extending the 1 point lead to 8 after the Conroy PAT.

Comeback complete, undefeated record intact, and on to Iowa City for a game with Big Ten and Rose Bowl implications not seen by the Spartan Nation at this point of a season in more than 20 years. These are the new, “Same Old Spartans.”

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The Offensive Line promised that rushing numbers like Illinois wouldn’t happen again. Today, the rested and prepared Wildcats held The BBC (Running Back Firm of Edwin Baker (So.), Le’Veon Bell (Fr.), and Larry Caper (So.), to 88 yards. The Spartans only gained 120 for the day (-15 on from Cousins). Next week doesn’t promise to be much easier against the stout and powerful Hawkeyes, but MSU must have better ground numbers if they plan to win at Kinnick. If they don’t fall into such a big hole early, they shouldn’t become as pass dependent, and should have a much better day on the ground.

Kirk Cousins first kept the sluggish Spartan Offense in this one, then he did what they needed (with big assist from Bates) to win it. Cousins' game has progressed nicely as the season’s games have become bigger and bigger. The issues we talked about earlier in the season appear to be resolved at this point. Those huge plays that MSU needed Cousins to make in order for this season to become special, are now continuing to be made. Cousins was 29/43 on the day for 331 yards, 3 TD, and the ultimately key 0 turnovers. Cousins had to throw that many times, had to complete that many big passes, and flat out did it to lead the massive comeback. Cousins grew up big time today, and played Quarterback at a Championship level.

Mark Dell played like a Senior today, holding MSU in the game through the 1st Half by grabbing 4 balls for 53 yards and a TD. Dell got open and became Cousins’ most important target throughout the day, totaling 9 grabs for 109, and 2 TDs.

Not to be outdone, Cunningham grabbed 8 for 113, and of course the game-winning TD that will become one of those plays you remember when reflecting on the special 2010 season. Nichol had his best game as a receiver, Bennie Fowler had his coming out party, and Gantt caught another ball that the Spartans could not have won the game without.

One stat to note though: the Spartans were last in the Big Ten in 3rd down conversions coming into the game. Today they were 5 for 14, but pulled off the critical string late to secure the comeback “W.”

Defense

Coming into Big Ten play, we talked about the challenge of becoming a great team with only an average Defense. Starting with the Wisconsin triumph, the Spartan Defense has clearly tightened up. While they might not be the top Defense in the Big Ten, they are no longer anywhere near the bottom. They're clearly better than average right now. And when you couple that with the Spartans’ performance in the other areas of the game, you're left to think that the Defense might be the single biggest reason why this Spartan team is now 8-0, and rolling (see the Hoover and Worthy sacks late).

NU’s Dan Persa was as tough and effective an Offensive player as the Spartans have gone up against to date (18/29, 188 yards, 1 INT-22 carries, 47 yards, 3 TDs). But guys like Chris Norman (So. LB) are really starting to mature. Norman has become of the real keys to MSU’s improved Defense against Spread teams. Just compare today’s effort and final result to that wacky shootout in 2007 where NU looked like it had Joe Montana throwing the ball.

The Spartan D held the Cats to 3 points in the final 17:50. That's their ultimate stat of the day.

Special Teams

Just when you thought the Special Teams unit couldn’t get any more special, they laid a little “Mouse Trap” today to see if the Cats would take the cheese. Even though Pat Fitzgerald told Spartan Nation during the Weekly Teleconference that he knew Coach D and company had a trick play or three up their sleeves, they still got burned. Without that play, MSU doesn’t win the game. And as Ohio St. Head Coach Jim Tressel told Spartan Nation at the start of the year, a Special Teams play or two might be the ultimate determining factor in crowning the 2010 Big Ten Champions. This Spartan unit is unquestionably special.

Overall

Meet the “new” “Same Old Spartans,” now more than four years in the making. Since Coach D arrived back in East Lansing in the winter of '06, the Spartans have not quit in any contest. Four years in, they’re not quite “old” in age, but they’re getting their fast, and now clearly sit on the verge of it. The culture change throughout Spartan Football has progressed to the point now where the so-called “traditional Spartan tendencies” have vanished from the scene.

Not even the likes of Desmond Howard, or the generally Spartan hating Chris Fowler, will be able to reset the old and tired JLS, Bobby Williams, and Nick Saban type come-from-ahead follies much longer. The new “Same Old Spartans” have made those old notions disappear into the past along with the “dial-up,” analog, and standard-definition television eras.

Those days are over; these are the “Same Old Spartans” now.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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