Pat Fitzgerald has said it on numerous occasions: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing without success over and over again. It seemed like words without action as Northwestern consistently made the same mistakes with leads late in games and failed to deliver on the promise of its strong start. In what is an otherwise successful season, Northwestern still had to be disappointed with the way the team lost those three games.
The Wildcats could not let that happen again, even when nursing the slimmest of seven-point leads entering the fourth quarter and a three-point lead after Jeff Budzien hit a 27-yard field goal with 7:30 left.
Northwestern fans were probably on edge as Michigan State took its chances at cracking into that lead. A drive found its way into Northwestern territory and it seemed like another lead would go up in smoke.
The Spartans had moved the ball pretty well on Northwestern throughout the game but the defense got stops time and time again. On this first drive it was a Drew Smith sack on first down that stalled the Michigan State drive. Then Trevor Siemian and Northwestern flipped the script on the playcalling, calling five pass plays on an important drive with 1:29 left. It only got to midfield before NU had to punt.
Then the secondary sealed the game up. David Nwabuisi broke up a pass to Le’Veon Bell on second down. Demetrius Dugar broke up a pass to Aaron Burbridge on third down. And finally with a deep throw to Dion Sims, Jared Carpenter ripped the ball out for a fumble or an incomplete pass. It did not matter which one since Jimmy Hall recovered the would-be fumble.
There was no insanity at the end of this game. Northwestern did something different. The Wildcats hung on for a 23-20 victory at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, almost guaranteeing a Florida bowl trip on New Years’ Day and keeping the dream of a 10-win season very much alive with That Team Downstate making the trip north this week.
This was not Northwestern’s prettiest game by any stretch of the imagination. The secondary played a fantastic game but still gave up 297 passing yards to beleaguered quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Michigan State outgained Northwestern 419-303 for the game. Making matters worse was the fact the Spartans committed four turnovers, but Northwestern failed to convert on points off of any of those opportunities with its offense (one of those turnovers was returned for a touchdown).
Still every turnover mattered, whether it was a botched snap on a 4th-and-1 near the goalline (that eventually led to a Michigan State safety) or David Nwabuisi returning a second-half pass to the endzone for a pick-6 to open the second half.
The offense struggled all day long too, failing to get much of a rhythm in the first half and losing Venric Mark to an “upper body” injury in the first half and Kain Colter to an undisclosed injury in the second half. Colter still zipped the go-ahead touchdown to Tim Riley late in the third quarter for a 20-13 lead. Trevor Siemian stepped in and had a lot of confidence and comfort leading an aggressive final drive looking to get out of the end zone and kill some clock.
Winning does not have to be pretty. That is what Northwestern probably learned more than anything in securing this win.
This was the kind of grind-it-out win good teams have to get sometimes when the offense is not working, the defense is giving up plays and star players get hurt. It was the kind of game where you just have to find a way to score more than your opponent.
Northwestern did that in breaking up passes, overcoming its porous defense. Northwestern did that in getting big sacks, overcoming some poor tackling at times. Northwestern did that by passing to run the clock out, overcoming a non-existent run game without Venric Mark.
The Wildcats did enough to win, even if it was not the prettiest. 1-0 is 1-0.