In what was truly a roller coaster ride, Northwestern (3-3, 2-1 B1G) edged Michigan State (2-4, 0-3) in a wild 54-40 shootout on Saturday. The Wildcats continued to have success on the road, winning their second-straight road game after starting the season 1-3 at home.
Two weeks ago, NU rolled into Iowa and scored a touchdown on its first drive en route to a hard-fought 38-31 win. At MSU, the game couldn’t have started more differently. After the Spartans scored on a 15-yard TD pass early in the first quarter, Clayton Thorson threw a costly pick-six on the next drive - and suddenly, the ‘Cats were down 14-0 in enemy territory, the win over Iowa a distant memory.
But NU just needed some time to warm up. After the pick six, the Wildcats outscored MSU 33-3 until midway through the third quarter. Justin Jackson had a pretty 29-yard TD run, Thorson and Austin Carr connected in the endzone for the fifth straight game and Joe Gaziano’s big boy sack forced a safety.
Then Thorson found Flynn Nagel for a 59-yard TD, and on the next drive, NU drove 86 yards in 10 plays, capped by a nine-yard Thorson TD rush. The ‘Cats were firing on all cylinders and controlling the game, even sending MSU fans to the exits.
This is actual footage of Northwestern football sending fans to the exits in the 3rd quarter of a road game pic.twitter.com/TXrz0pCeyU— NBN Sports (@nbn_sports) October 15, 2016
At that point, MSU’s redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke, who was starting his first-ever game, was pulled in favor of senior Tyler O’Connor, the usual starter. O’Connor made his impact known quickly, tossing a 59-yard TD followed by a 86-yard TD, pulling the score back to 33-31.
But the Wildcats refused to hand over momentum, and Solomon Vault returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a TD, increasing NU’s lead to 40-31.
From there, NU’s bread and butter took over. Jackson capped off a 13-play, 91-yard scoring drive with a 26-yard TD, eating over six minutes of clock. Jackson finished the game with 34 carries, racking up 188 yards and two TD’s. And just to be safe, Thorson found Carr once more in the back of the endzone, a 29-yard dagger TD late in the fourth quarter.
Carr finished with 11 catches for 130 yards and two TD’s, while Nagel had five catches for 81 yards and one TD. Thorson continued to impress in his second year of development, going 27-of-35 for 281 yards, throwing three TD’s and getting another on the ground.
NU racked up 490 yards of total offense, converting 10-of-19 on third down and amassing 26 first downs in total. The ‘Cats were able to build successful drives often, and while some of that has to do with MSU’s pitiful third-down defense (allowed 54.2 percent conversion rate over the past three games), NU’s offense is clearly improving every week.
“We had some huge plays offensively,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “... To see the way we are executing right now, at a pretty darn high level, I think makes it challenging [to stop us] as a defense. We’ve got pretty good balance … any time you have that, it gives you an opportunity to have some success.”
On defense, the ‘Cats continued to make impact plays at crucial moments, another area of consistent improvement over the season. Along with Gaziano’s safety, Ifeadi Odenigbo forced a momentum-changing fumble off a strip-sack, and Gaziano was able to recover it. Jared McGee recorded an interception, Anthony Walker added a sack and NU held MSU to 5-of-16 on third downs. NU's inexperienced secondary was exploited heavily at times, but the Wildcats have made significant progress in the front seven.
It was a stunning performance from a team that looks altogether different than the one that lost to Illinois State 9-7 in Week 2. But at this point, Fitzgerald says he’s tired of hearing about what happened early in the season.
"Early in the year, we weren’t a very good team,” Fitzgerald said. “... We could either pout and feel sorry for ourselves and then start to point fingers or we can stay on the grind and keep the pedal down. The only way we were going to get fixed was us.”
The 'Cats seem to have fixed themselves, but they will continue to be tested over their next three games. NU returns home next Saturday to face Indiana on Homecoming, and then faces the two toughest opponents on its schedule - Ohio State and Wisconsin. For now, the Wildcats will enjoy their recent road success, but NU will have to maintain its new electrifying offense and fine-tune its defense to keep up with an increasingly difficult Big Ten schedule.