Michigan State Spartans Invade Evanston with Pasadena on Their Mind!

Jonathan Schopp

On a dark and wet Thanksgiving Saturday, the Spartans and Wildcats dished out a generous portion of Holiday entertainment as the Spartans closed out the Cats for its 10th win of 2011. MSU came into Evanston and the finale not needing to beat Pat Fitzgerald’s Cats, but wanting to finish the regular season on positive note. Though only the bravest of Wildcat fans showed up to watch, a healthy dose of the Spartan Nation stood proud as the Spartans held off the Wildcats’ 2nd Half surge. The Spartans are now 60 minutes from a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.

After Northwestern won the toss and deferred to the 2nd Half, Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB) took the opening kick back with a little burst to the 30. A 1st down deep one towards Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) didn’t connect, but did draw a 15-yard Pass Interference flag to quickly move MSU out to their 45. Yet, on a 3rd and 4 that followed, Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) was hit for the second time of the drive, and sacked to force a Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) punt. Another terrific punt into bad weather went out of bounds at the NU 13.

Dan Persa (Rs.-Sr. QB) and the unique Wildcat attack started out up-tempo, just as Spartan Nation has come to expect. Though hampered by a couple of penalties, the Cats moved the ball by air and by ground to the MSU 45 in 10 snaps. But when the 3rd and 1 snap to Persa nearly flew over his head, Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) was right on the spot to hammer Persa after he secured the ball to avoid a turnover. The Wildcat punt went into the End Zone, and the Spartans began again at the 20.

Given the conditions and the desire of the MSU Offense to establish itself from the ground up, the Spartans looked to Edwin “Rock” Baker (Jr. RB) of The BBC to get things going. Yet, after having -90 yards rushing for the year, Cousins ironically stepped in with a 21 yard scramble on a 3rd and 10 (possibly the best run of his career) to break things open and bring MSU down to the NU 36. Two plays later, Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) picked up his own 21-yard gain around the edge, to set up MSU at the 13.

Two snaps later, MSU was left in a 3rd and 5, with Cousins looking for an open B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) coming over the middle in the End Zone.  Though Ryan Field has been kind to the Red Shirt Connection before, Cunningham couldn’t pull this one down for the score, and the Spartans had to settle for a 25-yard Dan Conroy (Rs.-Jr. PK) Field Goal to go up 3-0.

Kevin Muma’s (Rs.-So. K) subsequent kick was an odd “squib gone wrong” that was fielded cleanly by a Wildcat Up-Back (granted, football language can seem a bit strange sometimes) and brought forward 10-yards to the NU 39. The Cats moved it to the MSU 41 and then converted a short 4th and 1 to keep the drive moving.

Two plays later, Venric Mark (So. WR) took a Persa option-pitch for 17 to MSU 25. As the 1st Quarter ended, the game was practically even all across the stat sheet. But one that stood out was the Spartans 9 total yards passing. More surprisingly, the Wildcats had beaten the Spartans up front, on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats were stuffed to start the 2nd, however, as the Big Ten’s best Defense forced a 34-yard Field Goal from Jeff Budzien (So. PK) through the rain and wind, which tied the game up at 3.

Nick Hill’s 16-yard kickoff return started the Spartans again at their 32. But on a 1st and 10 from the 45, Cousins again saw pressure in his face and forced one up towards Cunningham and NU’s Jeravin Matthews (Sr. CB). It looked like a possible miscommunication between Quarterback and Receiver as Cousins was intercepted for the first time in 119 pass attempts. The Cats were back on the attack at their 35.

With Persa back behind center, NU ran and passed its way back into MSU territory only three plays later. Yet, keeping with their QB rotation, which has been the case for much of their season, Kain Coulter (So. QB) came back in and kept things moving. The Spartans did slow the Cats into another 4th and 1 (though longer this time) from the MSU 26 with 8:15 left in the 2nd, and Northwestern took a Time Out to talk the play over.

After the Pat Fitzgerald TO, Coulter came back out and gave an inside hand off to Jacob Schmidt (Sr. RB), who found the yards to keep the drive going.  Coulter briefly returned after Persa was hammered by Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr. DE) on 1st down, but that didn’t stop the Cats, who chipped their way down efficiently to the MSU 6, and a 2nd and 3. Treyvon Green (Fr. RB) took that handoff, but Isaiah Lewis (So. SS) came up huge and popped the ball lose, with Denzel Drone (Rs.-So. DE) right there to recover the fumble. It was the momentum burst the Spartans needed to really get things going.

After the fumble was confirmed by replay, the Spartans took over and Le’Veon Bell pounded the Spartans way out of their own end. As the Spartans moved towards mid-field, however, Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR) was hit with a Holding flag on a swing pass to Keshawn Martin that backed MSU up to a 2nd and 16. Left with a 3rd and 9 at their 32, Cousins found Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE) over the middle for 15 big yards, to keep the Spartans’ drive going.

On the next play, Cousins again looked deep for Martin, who pulled in the on target 46-yarder to the NU 7. Bell took the ball on 1st and Goal through the then softening Wildcat Defense for the score to make it 10-3 State. The 8 play, 97-yard drive that took 3:45 of clock completely swung the game’s momentum, and capped off at least a 10-point swing in the Spartan’s favor after the fumble. The Spartans had the clear emotional edge heading into the final minute and a half of the 2nd Quarter, and the Spartan Nation faithful weathering in Evanston had started to let them hear about it.

With Time Outs in hand, the Spartan Dawgs did their part to get after Dan Persa as NU started at their 24. After Kevin Pickelman (Rs.-Sr. NT) sacked Persa for a key loss of 8 on 2nd down, Mark Dantonio called his first TO to conserve the clock. He called his second TO after 3rd down, forcing a 4th and 11 NU punt from their 23. For some odd reason, Pat Fitzgerald decided to kick it to Keshawn Martin. As Spartan Nation, and even Wisconsin’s Brett Bielema knows well, that’s sometimes far from the safest idea.

The Wildcat punt went only 34-yards, and the flawed punt coverage gave Martin the type of space he likes to work with. Martin stepped up to field it clean, then slashed and dashed around the Cats for a 57-yard Touchdown return to put MSU up suddenly, 17-3. Talk about breaking it open, Martin’s final 2:00 of the Half left Northwestern shattered and stunned after playing so well for the first 25:00 of the game.

As the Spartans walked off at Halftime, they had the commanding lead they needed in order to have a chance to close out the pesky Wildcats before the game’s final moments. They took the game over after Drone recovered fumble and the Offense drove nearly the entire field. And then they took it over for good after the Defense forced the late NU punt, and Martin burned stretched the the lead to two TDs in such a dramatic fashion.

As the 3rd Quarter kicked off, the rain seemed to pick up, and NU started with the ball again from their 31 yard line. Facing an immediate 3rd and 3, the Cats looked to have a 1st down completion but were flagged for a 10-yard Hold of William Gholston (So. DE). Facing the then 3rd and 13, Persa saw a totally blown Spartan coverage over the middle and found a wide open Drake Dunsmore (Sr. TE) who went for 69-yards to the MSU 3. A short TD run from Schmidt followed, and the Cats had quickly cut it to 17-10.

A short and ugly kick off followed that ended up in the hands of TyQuan Hammock (Rs.-So. LB), who lost it to the turf after he was down, leaving the Spartans to begin from their 33. They regained some momentum on a 3rd and 3 with another solid run from Bell for the 1st down. After a slower start from the Offensive Line on the day, the MSU ground game became effective, and even Cousins got back into the act for a secondtime when he took the next 3rd down for 8 yards and another MSU 1st at the Wildcats’ 30.

But facing a 3rd and 13, after Bell slipped on a 2nd down screen pass with plenty of open space, Cousins kept his eyes forward in the pocket as he waited for Cunningham to slide open in the middle in the End Zone. Showing off some of his better NFL skills, Cousins threw a laser right on the money for the 33-yard TD, putting MSU ahead 24-10. For Cousins, it was his 61st TD pass as a Spartan, tying Jeff Smoker for the all-time MSU lead. More importantly, it was a Championship response to the Wildcats’ hot start to the 3rd.

The Cats looked again to punch back, and Dan Persa had them back around mid-field before a 2nd down drop, and 3rd and 4 fumble-sack led by Marcus Rush. NU had to punt again, but Martin didn’t get a chance to return it this time as the punt was downed at the MSU 16. With just over 4:00 left in the 3rd and a commanding 14-point lead, it was time for the MSU ground game to take the lead.

MSU was stuffed for a 3 and Out as some starters on the Offensive Line were subbed for, and Sadler left to punt it back to the Northwestern 35. A pass to Coulter and two straight Offsides flags on Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT) moved Persa and company to the MSU 49. On that 1st and 5, Persa ran through 13 yards of space in the middle of the field to the Spartan 36. Stopped quickly from there, Persa lined up in a 3rd and 9 from the MSU 35, after Fitzgerald and his Offense took a Time Out to discuss the final snap of the 3rd period. On that last play of the Quarter, Pat Narduzzi brought the heat on Persa, who scrambled away for only 3 yards. The 4th would begin with a Northwestern 4th and 6 from the MSU 32.

Deciding between a 49-yard Field Goal try and going for it on another 4th down, Fitzgerald decided the Cats’ best bet was to put the ball in Dan Persa’s hands. Persa dropped back and had plenty of time to find Jeremy Ebert (Sr. WR) crossing the field in man-to-man coverage, moving NU to the MSU 13, converting their third 4th down of the day.

Two snaps later, Persa found Demetrius Fields (Rs.-Jr. WR) for a 12-yard TD pass to finish off an 8 play, 65-yard drive, which cut it to a 24-17 Spartan lead. The Cats would not go down without all the fight they could muster in the final 13:57 of play.

Following their prior “3 and Out,” the Offense looked to drop their foot back down on the gas pedal, but took a bad “12 men in the huddle” flag on 2nd down. The Spartans recovered to face a 3rd and 4 from their 26. When Cousins scrambled left and could not find anyone open, Sadler was in to punt once again. His kick was downed at the MSU 37, and the Spartans were hit with a crucial 15-yard Personal Foul on Jarius Jones (So. S) for a mindless late hit. Far from the poise the Spartans were looking for with only a 7-point lead.

The Cats took over at the MSU 47, but went backwards fast with a 10-yard Holding flag and then big time sack up the middle from Worthy for a loss of 9, forcing an NU 2nd and 29. The Dawgs covered for a sputtering Offense and ill-timed 15-yarder, forcing a fantastic Wildcat punt that was downed at the MSU 7.

Cousins found another gear from there, going to Cunningham for 14, and then looking for him again on another home run ball down the middle. That throw was strong and right on target, but Cunningham was pulled down from behind for a well earned Pass Interference flag. Otherwise he might have gone to the house once again for a very long TD.

The Spartans kept attacking after a couple of Baker runs for 6 yards when Cousins hooked up with Cunningham for a nice 25-yard pass up the sideline. Martin kept the heat up with an 8-yard run to move it to the Wildcat 25, but MSU went essentially backwards from there, in a bad way, and nearly lost possession on a 1st down Cousins fumble. As well as Cousins threw the ball and led the Offense today, he slid down on his scrambles quite poorly. He must mix in some sliding practice before next week’s Championship game.

After a 2nd down screen to Le’Veon Bell was blown up by the NU Defense, the Spartans lined up for a 3rd and 17 from the NU 29, and were potentially out of Field Goal range because of the weather conditions. To no surprise at all, Cousins dropped back and looked for Cunningham streaking down the middle. But despite his earlier domination on that drive, Cunningham was only in single coverage, opening up some space. The ball was again right there for Cunningham to grab, but the Red-Shirt Senior again had to juggle one in at Ryan Field, and did so in a highlight fashion as he held on to it and then reached it over the Goal Line for the 29-yard score.

As we discussed again earlier this year, many of Cunningham’s best plays in his storied “Wide Receiver U” career have featured his “Basketball hands.” This was another All-Conference effort that also put Kirk Cousins alone at the top of the MSU all-time TD pass list. It also put the Spartans back up that important two-touchdown edge, 31-17.

Persa led the Cats’ last push from his 24, aided heavily again by a 15-yard Personal Foul for a late hit on a 4th and 1 that the Senior Quarterback had already converted. The flag brought Northwestern to the 50, where Persa found Rashad Lawrence (So. WR) for 31 yards to bring to the MSU 19. But that would be as far as the Cats’ would go against the Spartan Defense.

First it was Denicos Allen, who came flying in for a 7-yard 1st down sack. Then it was Max Bullough (So. LB) who sacked Persa on 2nd down. After a 3rd down incompletion, Persa lined up needing a 4th and 18 to keep hope alive. But for the 3rd time on the drive, he felt heavy pressure and was sacked. This time it was Marcus Rush, who capped off an outstanding day and placed a Green and White bow on the Spartans’ 10th win of 2011.

As the Spartans’ chant of “Go Green…Go White” echoed through Ryan Field during the final seconds of the 2011 regular season, it was fitting that those Snarlin' Narduzzi’s, the Spartan Dawgs, were back on the field to wrap things up. It was highly entertaining game, and fine 2nd Half effort from Northwestern. But it was far from enough to overcome the incredible 1st Half ending that proved the ultimate difference.

Today’s win marks the first time in school history that Spartan Football has won 10 games in back-to-back seasons, and there’s still two games to play. Next Saturday is of course the biggest, as MSU will head down I-69 to Indianapolis to take on the winner of Penn St.-Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship.

This program is right where it wants to be, and right where they expected to be…at the top of the Legends Division, and looking to win a few more Championships in their statement making 2011 campaign.

Today's Three Stars

1.        Keshawn Martin—The big catch and punt return-TD to blow this one open at the end of the 1st Half highlighted another outstanding day for perhaps the most unique talent in school history.

2.        Kirk Cousins—Led two 90+ yard TD drives, and threw a handful of outstanding passes when the Spartans needed something to break away from the very competitive Wildcats. He also set the MSU record for TD passes in a fitting fashion, to his all-time top target, B.J. Cunningham.

3.      B.J. Cunningham—Two 2nd Half TDs for MSU, and two 2nd Half TDs for a Senior receiver that will measure up with the very best who’ve ever worn the Green and White. He’s a dominant force who will surely be fired up to compete in the coming post-season after missing it the past two years. He should also get more recognition for the amazing amount of “clutch” catches he’s had through the years.