Northwestern’s matchup against No. 13 Michigan State followed a familiar pattern: field goals instead of touchdowns and freak, unlucky and, frankly, demoralizing plays.
It finished with a 30-6 defeat for the Wildcats (4-7, 0-7 Big Ten) at the hands of the Spartans (10-1, 7-0) on a frigid day where barely anyone stayed at Ryan Field long enough to see the clock hit zero.
The most definitive moment in Saturday’s game was an 87-yard touchdown pass from Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to senior receiver Bennie Fowler. But it couldn’t be just a regular blown-coverage completion. Instead, Fowler caught the pass behind him after freshman cornerback Matthew Harris tipped the ball and then fell to the ground. And by that time, there was no one to catch Fowler.
“When we give up a score, that’s on us,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Tyler Scott said. “That’s our mentality on defense and we have all the confidence in our offense.”
The first quarter saw a surprising turn of events, though. Northwestern’s defense forced two punts while the offense managed to score three points. The field goal-scoring drive was largely propelled, however, by penalties. The biggest was a hit to the head of senior quarterback Kain Colter, who was lined up as a wide receiver.
MSU strong safety Isaish Lewis was called for a targeting penalty, which according to the NCAA’s new rules, means ejection from the game. Colter then left the game, questionable with an upper extremity injury.
“This is as beat-up of a team that I’ve ever had to coach,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said on his team’s injuries throughout the season. “I wish we had the health that we had a year ago.”
With one senior leader down, another had a chance to step up.
Following Trevor Siemian's two incomplete passes target toward Tony Jones, senior kicker Jeff Budzien lined up for a kick as he’s done so many times before. This time, however, his three points earned him the spot as Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer with 264 career points.
“Jeff has had a terrific season and he’ll be the first to deflect praise,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s had an All-Big Ten, All-American, Groza-type year. He’s really been spectacular."
Seven points, of course, are always preferable to three, a fact Northwestern has not been able to capitalize on much this season. In fact, the last time Northwestern scored a regulation touchdown was against Iowa on Nov. 2 in the second quarter. That trend continued throughout Saturday’s game as well.
“It’s frustrating,” Siemian said. “We couldn’t capitalize. It’s kind of been the theme all year, I feel like. We haven’t really been able to finish drives."
On Northwestern’s third drive of the second quarter, Siemian found Christian Jones for a 23-yard gain and then Dan Vitale for 39 yards two plays later. Despite the flashes of the quick, high-powered offense Northwestern has shown in the past, the ‘Cats couldn’t convert on a third-and-goal from the 3-yard line.
It wasn’t just that the ‘Cats couldn’t punch it in on their own, but they allowed the Spartans’ running back Jeremy Langford to run all over the defense, finishing the day with 150 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
“We had some breakdowns, whether that be up front or in coverage. We didn’t get guys in the right gaps,” Scott said. “They’re a great team and you can’t go out there and make mistakes when you play a great team like that.”
One of Langford’s touchdowns came immediately after junior free safety Kurtis Drummond picked off Siemian for the second time that afternoon. Siemian’s first interception came on Northwestern’s previous drive as the ‘Cats were knocking on MSU’s door from the 14-yard line, yet another lost red zone scoring opportunity.
On both sides of the ball, Northwestern did have some bright spots, such as a sack on Cook by redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo for a nine-yard loss. Northwestern’s receivers had good days, as well. Redshirt junior Tony Jones had seven catches for 59 yards; sophomore Dan Vitale had five receptions for 58 yards; and junior Christian Jones had three for 43 yards.
Michigan State’s victory gives the team the Legends division and a ticket to the Big Ten Championship, while Northwestern falls to 0-7 in the conference.
In the senior class’ last showing at home, Fitzgerald lamented the team’s performance but said its attention will turn to competing for the Land of Lincoln Trophy next weekend (given to the winner of Northwestern vs. Illinois) and for the team’s self-confidence.
“The year hasn’t gone the way that any of us wanted and especially for those 14 great young men,” Fitzgerald said. “We get one more with them and that’ll be what our focus is. We get one more opportunity to go out there and battle our in-state rival.
“The year ’13 is over here in a week,” he continued. “Good riddance.”