As fans, we’re not beholden to silly coaching cliches or player protocols. We can look ahead on the schedule all day long. We can hang on to wins until next year, and sulk after losses as much as we please. However, the pain of Saturday’s Hail Mary Victors loss to Michigan is one of those that, like Nebraska, will sting for years to come. I believe the Michigan and Nebraska losses are in the Past 25 Years House of Pain Top Ten list that includes the likes of Miami (OH) ’95, Wake Forest ’96, Iowa ’00 and of course the Michigan State ’06 game which cemented our school’s name in infamy for blown leads. Here we are some six seasons later and it seems like we’ve come full circle – from losing a 5 TD third quarter lead against Michigan State – to now needing to beat Michigan State to help bury the pain of a third double-digit second half lead in one season. So, I’m choosing to put my head in the sand about last week and look ahead. A win over Sparty and Illinois and we’ll be Gator Bowl bound. A loss to Sparty and win over Illinois and we’re headed to Arizona for the BW3 bowl game. Considering Ohio State has been a given loss all but one year on our schedule in my lifetime, the two other teams that lead the Northwestern annals of “most tormenting” have been Penn State and now, thanks to the last half decade of pain, Michigan State. How nice would it be to roll in to East Lansing and pay back the pain and suffering they’ve caused us by putting them on the brink (currently 5-5) of staying home this bowl season (Minnesota is their finale) and delivering a nice double-digit loss to the team that is so easy to dislike?
As we do most weeks, it’s time to give you some historical context on the opponent at hand – Michigan State – the most formidable defense we’ll have faced all season – by a long shot, in my opinion. We’ll spend much of this week on the strategy going in to this game as there is no word yet on Venric Mark’s health, Kain Colter’s leg and the fact that running on Sparty has been next to impossible. For now, let’s brush up on all the reasons of late why I want this win so very badly.
Series Capsule Alltime Series: Michigan State leads 36-16
Pat Fitzgerald Era: Michigan State leads 5-1
Since 1995: Michigan State leads 8-5
Favorite LTP Win: 2001 “Instant Classic”
Least Favorite ‘Cats Loss: The All-time “Bad” Comeback -2006
Magic ‘Cat Moments
2001 – “Instant Classic”Annually I rank this doozy as the most underrated game in Northwestern lore. Perhaps the major disappointment of the 2001 season clouds us from good memories of that year, but this is the craziest finish in the series history. The ‘Cats entered the game ranked #16 facing a #23 Michigan State team at Ryan Field. Amazingly, Michigan State returned two kicks to the house in the final 4:42 and still lost. After the ‘Cats went up 24-20 with under :30 to go, Herb Haygood busted and 84-yard KOR for a TD to put Sparty up by two. And in one of the most underrated plays in NU lore, Napoleon Harris blocked the PAT. Northwestern got the ball with :16 left and promptly hit the “Victory Right” button once again. This time the Hail Mary was caught by Jon Schweighardt on a tip from Kunle Patrick at the Sparty 33. David Wasilewski drilled a 47-yard FG as time expired and the ‘Cats moved to 3-0 and #14 in the nation with the 27-26 win.
1997 – The Anwaun Jones Game One of the few bright spots in the ‘Cats disappointing 5-7 ’97 season was a 19-17 homecoming win over Sparty. The Spartans entered the game ranked and appeared as if they’d pull out a last second win as they had a chip shot for the win, but Anwaun Jones got his hand up and blocked the potnetial game-winning FG.
2005 – The Sparty Beatdown On October 18, 2005 Brett Basanez led the ‘Cats in to battle in East Lansing against yet another ranked Spartan squad. Michigan State was #22 in the country so when Sparty marched downfield to jump out 7-0 you thought “here we go”. Brett Basanez may have had his best passing day of his career as he was 24-30, 331 yds and staked NU to a 21-7 halftime lead. You kept waiting for the Spartans to retaliate, but NU capitalized on mistake after mistake and another 100-yard Tyrell Sutton performance made this team look much like the current Spartan team. Northwestern romped 49-14 in one of the most enjoyable Big Ten games this NU fan has ever had as blowout wins are so rare. Demetrius Eaton’s rambling for an 86-yard TD off a Drew Stanton fumble is the indellible image in this game.
2007- The CJ OT Game
NU entered the September 29, 2007 game limping without Tyrell Sutton and a 2-3, 0-2 record. CJ Bacher was brilliant setting several school records (later to be broken by Mike Kafka in the Outback Bowl) including a 520-yard day in the air and tying a school record with 5 TDs. Omar Conteh stepped up in Sutton’s absence and NU needed overtime to finally put Sparty away in the 48-41 OT win (Conteh caught the game-winner). The ‘Cats blew two opportunities to win it in regulation including a missed 36-yard FG by Amado Villareal as time expired, yet persevered and escaped East Lansing with a “w” in an offensive thriller.
The 2000 Blowout This game is so far off the radar even I forgot about it before looking it up in the media guide last season. Again, Northwestern faced a ranked Michigan State team that was 3-0 in East Lansing. Just one week after our thrilling OT upset of #6 Wisconsin at the Madhouse in Madison, NU entered Michigan State with most of us sensing a letdown game. The ‘Cats promptly put up 200 yards of rushing – in the FIRST HALF – and Damien Anderson simply torched the Spartans for 219 yards on 25 carries (how far away does THAT seem from our offense these days?) and NU cruised to a 37-17 laugher.
HOUSE OF PAIN (AKA, The Losses)
Sparty has had its fair share of pleasant moments in recent years, but there are a couple of games that stick out for me.
The (Bad) Comeback – 2006 As NU fans we get very sensitive anytime you bring up a game, event or occurence that wakes the echoes of the Dark Ages. Fitz’s first homecoming as head coach turned in to just that. Northwestern was up 38-3 midway through the third quarter when Michigan State promptly capitalized on the enormous momentum swing of Nick Roach breaking his leg and as if a switch went off, the beleagured John L. Smith-led Spartans put on a comeback show like nothing we’ve ever seen before. I’ll never forget constantly doing the math while looking at the scoreboard. We continually did quick time of possession calculations (“let’s see, we’re up 21 now, if our average drive is 3-minutes, will they be able to…)to see if it was even possible for the comeback and painfully it was. Northwestern added another futility record to the books with the largest blown lead in NCAA history. Sparty wins 41-38.
The 2008 Fizzle NU was off to its best start – 5-0 – in my lifetime and Michigan State entered Ryan Field undefeated as well. The ‘Cats were ranked #22 and Sparty was #19 and the ‘Cats got the ABC late afternoon coverage slot which seemingly set-up a great day. The ‘Cats looked much like they have in big games not named Iowa under Fitz as several miscues inlcuding a fumbled kickoff return by Sherrick McManis and a pick thrown by CJ deep in our territory which aided Michigan State to jump out to a 17-0 1st quarter lead. NU battled back on the shoulders of Tyrell Sutton who posted a 139-yard rushing day including a 66-yard buster to set-up a TD. Bacher threw – get this – 61 times – in the 37-20 loss in which many walked away with the same feeling we had after Purdue last year under the lights – we folded under the pressure of the big game.
The FG Robbery Game A year after getting a big upset at Michigan State (16-13 in 1991), the ‘Cats Halloween hosting of Sparty in 1992 was a mean trick. The ‘Cats were down 27-26 and Len Williams led NU to a seemingly game-winning drive. Brian Leahy kicked a FG sky high over one of the uprights and the refs looked at one another while walking as to say “what do you say – it was too high up to judge…” they shook their heads “no” and the ‘Cats lost 27-26 as many of the students had started to run on to the field thinking it was good. Sparty wins 27-26.
2010 – “They Took The Cheese” Game
Northwestern had ‘em. Dan Persa was his usual masterful self and helped the ‘Cats jump out to a 17-0 lead over the #7 undefeated Spartans. Kirk Cousins was putting up yardage in the air, but NU was able to keep MSU in check and headed to the lockerroom up 17-7. The ‘Cats seemed to be in control all day until one play turned the tide. After being held in NU territory, Michigan State was pondering going for it on 4th down, but took a 5-yard delay of game penalty and elected to punt. Well, fake punt, that is. Northwestern allegedly was screaming for the fake punt as Michigan State was near our 40 and the entire nation had seen what Michigan State did to Notre Dame earlier in the season to win. However, Jordan Mabin turned the wrong way and Aaron bleepin Bates hit Bennie Fowler on a floater that went for a first down. MSU scored on the next play and momentum shifted for good. The ‘Cats had the ball down one with under two minutes to go, but a nasty wind kicked in and Persa was picked and the ‘Cats left homecoming heartbroken. Mark Dantonio was giddy and seemed to relish winning the cat and mouse game as he told a national TV audience that they were hoping we would “take the cheese” and we did. Man, do I want to beat Sparty badly this year.
I left out last year’s game, which seemed to be going our way until Treyvon Green fumbled inside the five sparking a last two minute rally for the Spartans, who had clinched the division and seemed to be sleepwalking. Their cadre of receivers promptly lit up our secondary and their D-line overpowered our line, frustrating Dan Persa who spent most of his day staring at the sky after getting piledrived in to the ground.