Northwestern closes the door, defeating Michigan State

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.

  • cs93

    We threw that cheese back in their face!

    But yeah, we made another average QB look all Big Ten again. We probably got away with some pass interference calls, too. Most disturbing was that the offense couldn’t capitalize on two of those turnovers (it would have been tough to score after that fumbled snap at the 1-yard line). But hey, it’s still a good win. And the play calling didn’t go into a shell down the stretch. That’s encouraging. Let’s not relax for Illinois though.

    • cece

      +1 flush the win. BEAT ILLINOIS!!!!!!

      • CM

        I would say let’s get ready for Illinois because it’s: their Super Bowl this season, the rivalry game, the recent bad blood, etc…
        But then again, I know we can count on Tim Beckman to do plenty of yapping this week to pump up the game and to ease any concerns about our guys “relaxing”. Even at 2-9 or 3-8, Beckman will be talkin.

        • cece

          ditto. beat Beckman.

          • DenverWildcat

            If we want to make it a special season we also have to treat our “rivalry” game like the super bowl. I think we will. Go Cats!!!

    • RCat27

      48% passing for 6.5 YPA and 2 picks isn’t exactly an all Big Ten stat line

  • Timc

    Great to get a win. We got a lot of gifts today. But what has to be mentioned was another HORRIBLE game by Brandon Williams. He punted like the ball was a bag of Sakrete. Consistently bad.

  • CBCat

    Anyone find it amusing how on our last offensive drive of the game, the ESPN2 announcer kept yapping about how we should run down the clock with running plays and then punt to “pin them back at their 20 with no timeouts and less than a minute left”? I guess the Michigan game called and wanted it’s failed endgame strategy back. I so wanted to smack that guy. It’s only his job to kinda have a clue.

    • David

      I laughed when he said that under a minute would not leave time to get in FG range.

      • Old Fat Bald Guy

        That guy was really annoying. Early safety, baseball-score joke (twice). Ha, ha, you’re a true original and a comic genius! Then the complaining about the low score in the first half. If you don’t like football, don’t watch it.

    • Indylib

      I was equally annoyed with the non-stop chatter about MSU’s heartbreak this season and their season that could’ve been. Was no prep done on NU’s losses?

      • jpklock

        I think that MSU (5-6, as defending B1G champions) has a more legitimate claim to heartbreak.

        • Indylib

          I think the commentary would’ve been more interesting if they’d talked about both teams having missed out on opportunities for much better records. I don’t mean to make it a competition for whose heart broke more, only that there was little mention on NU’s season all game, just MSU’s.

          • sailingcat

            I usually don’t notice the commentary that much, but these announcers were so unbalanced it was distracting. Our season mirrored MSU’s in terms of heartbreak and it was hardly discussed.

          • +1 I thought the chatter was totally unbalanced. It seemed like they had the ESPN video and MSU radio network audio.

        • DenverWildcat

          I believe, three double digit 4th quarter Big Ten losses by NU is worse than 3 MSU losses by less than 10 points. Last season is last season and this year MSU has been down

    • I thought it was really funny. I was very happy with the playcalling at the end going to the short passes. Running was clearly not going to work without Mark or Colter in there. Siemian did a good job keeping the team moving and gave the defense a chance. Defense stepped up to secure the win.

      • DenverWildcat

        Makes you miss Persa doesn’t it…He was great at closing a game

    • cece

      over on the MSU blog folks were angry that the deuce announcers were pro NU. cannot imagine what they heard!

    • WildCat98

      Today’s broadcast really echoed that anti-Northwestern sentiment ESPN displays. That was perhaps one of the most blatant displays of “homerism” I’ve heard in what’s supposed to be an objective broadcast. Very annoying for them to talk about missed opportunities, I mean they could have tried to dub this the “what-if” bowl. Very disappointed ESPN, please give us a fair and balanced broadcast.

  • Alec

    The punting is cause for concern, but the staff showed flexibility with play calling and the defense played like some men. Having a defense and making field goals, it’s so nice to be capable in those departments.

  • SJ Wildcat

    Cats must work on tackling. Noticed a number of times today where defenders went for the big hit and never even attempted to wrap-up the ball-carrier. The defensive meetings should have the coaches showing MSU players absorbing the hit and gaining an extra 5 yards.

    • Jpklock

      What I saw was a lot of attempts to strip balls, instead of tackling cleanly. On any given play, that looks like a problem– but as an overall strategy, I think it’s absolutely part of our -4 turnover ratio in this game.

      Having lived through the 90s as a student and young alum, this is exactly how Fitz played and won. 2 years ago, I saw our D over-commiting to stripping balls, and losing games because of it. Now, they’re at the point where they can strip out a fumble maybe 1-2 times per game, and give up garbage yards when it goes south. That’s what I want to see.

  • WestCoastBuffaloJoe

    Big program win…if we back it up with a win against Illini.
    Win, on the road, without Venric Mark for most of the game.
    One really bad play by Kain Colter–got to get rid of the ball in the end zone if nothing there or run it out IMMEDIATELY. Could get a holding penalty in the end zone (safety) or sacked to give away two points.
    One questionable call by Fitz. Got to run it once more on that last series OR tell TS to throw if WIDE OPEN, if not, take the sack. but that is nitpicking.
    Great job by the D. HUGE on a day when we were without Venric Mark (which severely limits Colter’s effectiveness) and COlter at the end.
    TS played very well at QB. Could have put the game away earlier if not for drops by his receivers (a problem ALL YEAR).
    Great win. Great job by Fitz and the D.

  • SJ Wildcat

    At 8-3 with a good chance to go 9-3 next Saturday, we should be proud of what the Cats accomplished today essentially without Mark and his 200 all-purpose yards as well as the loss of Colter in the second half. Dan Vitale did a great job today. My only open question concerning the offense is: Why no Trumpy??? Strange.

    • Apologies to Dan Vitale for not squeezing him into the recap. He was fantastic today. I am sure LTP will have him in his recap later tonight!

  • Old Fat Bald Guy

    Am I missing something, or is it almost definitely the Gator Bowl?

    • cece

      radio guys said GBowl at the very least. gator sliders!

      • Old Fat Bald Guy

        On further review, I think GoU is correct … it’s Gator or Outback.

        • BostonWildcat

          If wisky loses 1 more vs penn st or (likely) Nebraska, cats are guaranteed the outback (assuming we beat Illinois). IMO, outback is the most likely scenario at this point. Also not a given that we would play South Carolina. Florida and Georgia also legit candidates. All 3 teams have a top 10 game left though so plenty of things left to play out.

  • James

    What was most encouraging to me is that MSU clearly had NU scouted perfectly. They knew our DB’s have struggled all year, and they went after them repeatedly deep. Our guys (notably Campbell, who had a pretty incredible game on all fronts) did a decent enough job not getting beat that those plays ended up hurting MSU’s offensive rhythm tremendously. It seemed like especially in the second half, Bell was motoring 4-8 yards every time, so when they took shots deep, that took away a down and didn’t allow them to pound it for first downs consistently.
    Also loved the aggressive play calling at the end of the game, even though they still ended up with a chance to drive for the tie/win. I would much rather take those shots with a chance to put the game away with the ball in our hands (especially after last week…), and end up giving the ball back with 1:40 to go than play conservatively to milk another 40 seconds. Overall, a satisfying win. Let’s bring it home next week and finally get that damn bowl game victory.

  • GoU

    So this pretty much puts us against South Carolina in the Outback or Mississippi State in the Gator, depending on whether Wisconsin loses enough down the stretch for us to jump them?

    • Old Fat Bald Guy

      I think Wisconsin would have to lose to the University of Chicago.

      • Old Fat Bald Guy

        I retract that snide comment. I didn’t realize Wisconsin could, realistically, end up 7-6. Not sure what would happen then.

        • ende

          what would happen then is if they do and we go 9-3 then we go tampa–believe it

    • Aaron

      You’d better hope and pray we don’t face #9 SC. NU has a bad history being put into bowl games with teams much better than them and losing them all. It’s as if we are offered up to better teams as a sure bowl win (although we always make it close). This is why I would be ok with NU going 8-4 and getting into a bowl they can definitely win. We always choke when put into the spotlight. Let’s take baby steps. Let’s win the Pizza City Bowl before we take on the Gator, Sugar or Rose Bowl.

      • South Carolina’s defense definitely scares me. Northwestern doesn’t play anyone like Jadaveon Clowney. But I would rather get the chance at a team like South Carolina than end up in Detroit playing against a MAC team that is pretty good, but history will claim is irrelevant. Yes, we have disappointed in the past, but we still reap the benefits of playing Auburn in the Outback Bowl. You never know and Pat Fitzgerald always prepares his teams well for bowl games to play up to whatever competition. It is ALWAYS better to play in a bigger bowl game, in my opinion.

        • skepticat

          Detroit isn’t under discussion. But I like our chances against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl better than any other bowl/match-up I’ve seen posited. I’ll gladly take that game, and what looks for once like a potentially favorable match-up for us, to avoid adding longest bowl losing streak to our display case of records we’re on the wrong side of.

          • Aaron

            Mississippi State would be fine by me too. We just need a bowl win…any bowl. I think even a win at a minor bowl would do more for our program than going to the Gator Bowl and losing. We have to get this monkey off our back and avoid being the school with longest bowl losing streak. That press would damage our recruiting.

          • I actually like our match-up with South Carolina, especially with no Lattimore.

          • PBRCat

            I doubt that Northwestern would be in the mix to play in Detroit this year. With two B1G teams ineligible for the bowl season, I also think that the conference may not be able to supply Detroit with a team this year.
            I am hoping for a Florida destination this year.

        • David

          USC beat Vandy by a FG and was tied with the terriers after three quarters today. It would be a huge challenge….but there is a reason why thet play the games.

  • James

    What was most encouraging to me is that MSU clearly had NU scouted well, in that they knew our secondary has been awful. They went deep early and often, challenging our Dbacks consistently. For the most part we didn’t allow anything deep, which ended up being the biggest part of the game in my opinion. Ibraheim Cambell in particular had an incredible game on all fronts. This strategy for MSU also ended up killing them, because especially in the second half Bell was reeling off 4-8 yard runs every time he touched the ball, and by going deep they kept losing downs. This didn’t allow them to pound it for first downs.
    Also loved the aggressive play calling at the end of the game. I would much rather take those chances to close out the game with the ball in our hands (especially after last week…). We ended up giving them a chance to tie/win with 1:40 to go rather than playing conservatively and milking another 40 seconds, but taking those chances is worth it every time in my book. Let’s bring it home next week and then win a damn bowl game!

    • In my opinion, we would not have been as effective with Colter in there at the end of the game. MSU had no answer for our short passing game all day, and Trevor is much more accurate and has so much more velocity on the ball than Kain. If Colter would have been in the game, the staff would have been tempted to run the ball, which would have played directly into MSU’s strengths. So, in an odd way, Kain’s injury was what put us in a position to win the game.

      • Db

        is that the story, that colter was hurt? If so that was temporarily fortunate. He could not move the ball. Trevor was absolutely the guy. If the receivers caught balls that hit them in the numbers it wouldn’t have been that closer.

        I loved the play calling at the end, but also thought they should have run it the last time. Whatever, worked!

      • Doug

        totally agree

  • cece

    Trib reporting MD and Rutgers in talks to join B1G.

    • Estif

      I sure hope not. Maryland is gross and Rutgers is irrelevant.

      • David

        Baltimore is the V.D. Capital of America.

  • bandcat

    Great win for the Seniors against the Sparty…Some Tilmanesque plays by our defensive players…great to see the Turnovers..Campbell outstanding all over the field. Collapsin Cats only a faint memory… Whew!!! Psyche up and bring the family and friends to Ryan for the Holiday festivities..Get that dang Stove Pipe Hat back where it belongs!!! Go Cats!!!


    I realize that today’s win is big news for Wildcat nation. Yet, we may very well have a bigger story developing. Delaney may be planning an ‘end around’ by going after Maryland and Rutgers. Why? Ultimately, I think he is looking to snag NC and destabilize the ACC to the point where ND (or Duke) may be forced to join. Thoughts?


      Especially when you factor in rumors of Clemson and FSU leaving for the Big12. Things could get very interesting starting Monday for conference realignment.

    • David

      You know the BTN would love to get Big 10 footprint rates in NYC and DC. Neither Rutgers or Maryland offer much in the line of history….but they bring 10 million more viewers.


        Yep. Academically, both schools are AAU and great fits.The added potential for increased reasearch $ is significant. I have a hunch that Delaney is looking to pick off a few more ACC schools. We’ll see. But the added exposure will be big in the TV renegotiations. For Northwestern, I could see 5-10K NU fans at these east coast stadiums. I would like to see the big ten add one more private institution…DUKE!!

    • Washington Post noted an academic angle that would benefit UMD. Story also getting airtime on WTOP (Washington DC talk radio).

    • Doug

      FML. If this happens I may give up on football. For the love of god, Big Ten, stop trying to change. Be comfortable with who you are, and don’t water down what is an excellent brand. What the fuck is the point of being in a conference when you don’t play some of the teams for more than 4 years at a time? Its not all about money (at least it sure as shit shoudln’t be, and its not like there isn’t plenty of money to go around already).

  • pairofcats88

    Our non-conference is looking a little better…. Syracuse made it self bowl-eligible today and Vandy crushed Tennessee to go to 7-4

  • Scubacat

    It’s gonna be a 9 win season. Bet on it folks. Illini are a pathetic lot. 0-13 in recent BIG 10 play. And, as great as that is, imagine what might have been if we could change one play in each of our 3 losses. Well, water under the bridge. Lets win a bowl game!

    • CBCat

      What’s really insane is if you consider this alternate reality after what happened in the Kansas St. and Oregon games tonight. Undefeated Cats playing for the national championship? Lol. Too mind-boggling to even think about.

  • SJ Wildcat

    Seeing Kansas State and Oregon lose tonight can make a Cat fan a little crazy thinking about “what might have been.” That said, the Cats know they have plenty of room for improvement. The game today was the first B1G game in my long memory where the Cats got the advantage of a pass interference call when we needed help AND a no call on a pass interference penalty when it could have really hurt. So, I am just going to enjoy 8-3 and forget the “what if” arguments. Had I been asked if I would believe this young team would be 8-3 going into the Land of Lincoln game before the year started, I would have replied (without hesitation), “I will take it.” Now it is time to take care of business against the Illini next Saturday – no mercy Fitz – bury them. Go Cats!

  • notsoutheastern

    good news is we’re no lower than gator bowl. outback bowl still in play depending on whether wisco makes rose bowl or not, and capital one bowl if michigan loses to osu next weekend and we beat illinois. capital one bowl people really like us