“You hear about how many fourth-quarter comebacks that a guy has and I think it means a guy screwed up in the first three quarters.” - Peyton Manning
The comeback story is a time-tested trope that everyone seems to enjoy. The good guys find the true meaning of teamwork in the final minutes of the game to overcome the surely insurmountable deficit they find themselves in, and win the game in the final seconds by some miraculous, drama-filled play. Ask Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.
But in real life, comebacks are not as poetic or heroic, and often, instead of lofty praise going to the victor, fans instead choose to ridicule the losers. Ask the Atlanta Falcons, who famously lost Super Bowl LI after leading 28–3, or the Golden State Warriors, who lost the 2016 NBA Finals after a record-breaking regular season and leading their opponent 3–1 in the series. The phrases “28–3” and “Warriors blew a 3–1 lead” have become memes in the sports realm, letting their fans suffer and endure heckle after heckle of a single word: “choke.”
And in the college football realm, no choke has a greater magnitude than Northwestern’s 41-38 loss to Michigan State on October 21, 2006. The Cats led by 35 with under 25 minutes to play, only to squander it to the Spartans. Truly one of the worst collapses in sports history.
And yet no one seems to be discussing it further. What circumstances led to this environment? Why was it such a rough patch for the football team? And what did it result in for the program? In another story detailing Northwestern’s role in the greater sports universe, let’s discuss the greatest football comeback in NCAA FBS history… and why it may only be a footnote in the history books.
Setting the stage
“We welcome you to Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. The Michigan State Spartans, the Northwestern Wildcats: each squad looking for its first conference win of the season.” - ESPN Gamecast
Exhibit A: this was a battle of futility that few could stand to watch. Northwestern and Michigan State were not exactly powerhouses in the Big Ten in 2006, with the two groups coming into Evanston with records of 2–5 and 3–4, respectively. To go by numbers alone, however, doesn’t tell the full story.
Michigan State was in one of their darkest stretches of seasons in recent memory. Led by fourth-year coach John L. Smith, the Spartans came out the gate strong with a 3–0 record, before losing to Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State (all but Illinois were ranked). It was widely believed that Smith was in danger of losing his job, and to add to the Spartans’ woes, their loss against Notre Dame came after the Irish scored 19 fourth-quarter points.
On the other sideline, the ’Cats were dealing with a much sadder issue. On June 29, 2006, head football coach Randy Walker died suddenly due to a heart attack. It was sudden and unexpected, and completely rocked the Northwestern football team, which a season earlier earned a 7–5 record and a berth in the Sun Bowl. Taking his place was the then-youngest coach in the FBS: 31-year-old Pat Fitzgerald.
Although he had been coaching with the program since 2001 and was long considered the eventual successor to Walker, Fitzgerald now saw himself in complete control of the program. Ahead of the Michigan State matchup, his team was 2-5 with wins against Miami University and Eastern Michigan, still looking for its first Big Ten victory.
So you had a 57-year-old veteran coach, struggling to keep his job in a storied program, going up against a newly-appointed 31-year-old leader, trying to keep the team’s spirit and passion afloat. And on October 21, they each had a shot to get their first conference win and bring life back into their teams.
Something had to give.
The Climb to the Top
“Sixty minutes or whatever it takes.” – Randy Walker
The Homecoming Weekend game at Ryan Field came at an interesting point for both teams, as they both faced interesting situations at quarterback. Michigan State had a time-tested veteran in senior quarterback Drew Stanton, who became a top quarterback prospect for the NFL, but was plagued with injuries. He didn’t seem impacted early, however, as he led the Spartans on a five-minute opening drive that saw completion with a field goal. MSU 3, NU 0.
On the other sideline, Northwestern was facing an issue known to many: their offense could not produce. Losing four-year starter Brett Basanez, who would hold several school records until Clayton Thorson’s reign, and dealing with a new offensive coordinator, the ’Cats were struggling with their worst offense in years and were about to start their third quarterback of the year: sophomore C.J. Bachér.
And Bachér delivered, being cool and collected as he led the ’Cats down the field with several big passing plays in his first series, tearing the MSU defense like string cheese. His first touchdown quickly followed, a strike to Ross Lane. The crowd roared, the band played, and the ’Cats felt life in Ryan Field. NU 7, MSU 3. And this is where the fun begins.
MSU punts. Touchdown ’Cats. MSU punts again. ’Cats settle for a field goal. MSU punts a third time. Touchdown ’Cats. At halftime, the score is 24–3.
What were the culprits of this offensive success? For starters, Bachér was playing like a rockstar, throwing deep passes that would hit his targets dead on. Another key contributor was sophomore Tyrell Sutton, who won Big Ten Freshman of the year the season prior; he was having an absolutely ridiculous showing, as he found holes through the middle and sprinted away from linebackers.
Also contributing to this dominance? The Spartans gave up a ton of yards on penalties, including a roughing-the-kicker penalty on the ’Cats’ first drive of the third quarter. It allowed Northwestern to continue to storm up the field and tack on ANOTHER touchdown, on another deep throw from Bachér. The ’Cats were rolling, and after an interception by Marquice Cole followed by a dime from Bachér, the score was 38–3 with only 25 minutes left to play.
NU 38, MSU 3.
The John L. Smith Comeback Plan
“When the snowball starts rolling downhill … sometimes it becomes an avalanche pretty quickly.” – ESPN Gamecast
So the ’Cats are rolling. The defense is locking down. The Spartans can’t do anything right. Maybe the Purple Faithful will see a Homecoming win. Right?
Well, that wasn’t exactly in the cards for MSU head coach John L. Smith. His job was in jeopardy and a loss of this magnitude would likely be the end. So with under 25 minutes to play, he kept trying to get his offense going and get back into the game. He followed a plan:
Step 1: The two-minute drill. Smith enacted what’s known in football as “desperation mode.” He sent his players lunging up the field with deep passes and hurried offensive lineman, trying to get it into the endzone in the least amount of time possible. And it worked. Stanton tossed a touchdown to stop the bleeding, and cut the deficit to 28.
Step 2: Lockdown on defense. The ’Cats were forced to a three-and-out the following possession, allowing Stanton to come back onto the field and throw more deep strikes, before handing it off to A.J. Jimmerson to cut the deficit again. NU 38, MSU 17.
Now although this was frightening, the ’Cats saw no reason to panic just yet. Following the touchdown, the offense returned to the field and saw Sutton once again tear through the Spartan defense for a 64-yard-long run, setting up the ’Cats in the red zone. Bachér, however, finally got pressured in the pocket and threw a contested throw that wound up his first interception. No matter; the ’Cats’ defense went out and immediately knocked out Drew Stanton, setting up his backup to be intercepted. But again, the ’Cats went nowhere, setting up the next phase in Smith’s plan.
Step 3: A little luck on special teams. Having traded interceptions, Northwestern found themselves in punt formation. But the Spartans were hungry, and broke through the line to block the punt, and Ashton Henderson returned it 33 yards for a touchdown. NU 38, MSU 24… and rolling.
Step 4: Rinse and repeat Steps 1 and 2. Northwestern goes three-and-out. Stanton comes back from injury to lead the Spartans to another touchdown, running it in himself. Northwestern gets stopped on third down. Stanton keeps throwing, and the Spartans tie the game at 38 with under four minutes remaining.
The momentum didn’t stop. Bachér, taking the offense back onto the field, immediately threw an interception. Michigan State runs down the clock, kicking a field goal with 13 seconds left, to ice the game.
MSU 41, NU 38. Game over.
“He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now.” – Eminem
So what happened? What was the x-factor in the demise?
ESPN wrote that Pat Fitzgerald took the blame for the loss, but the truth is there’s not a lot documented for why the ’Cats lost in such horrific fashion. In analyzing the game, we can break down the key elements.
For one, the Wildcats had lost their leading tackler, senior linebacker Nick Roach, to injury in the third quarter. When a key piece of your defense is suddenly unavailable, it becomes difficult to readjust mid-game, especially when your opponent is playing a Usain Bolt-level speed of offense.
Secondly, the defense was just plain exhausted. Following the Falcons’ aforementioned Super Bowl collapse, many experts pointed to fatigue playing a key role in the loss. When your defense is constantly on the field without a chance to truly rest, it takes a toll on them. They can’t fully recover.
And the last? Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton was a warrior. He battled through injury, kept his head up and saw it through. He wanted to win.
And it would be his last college win.
Aftermath of an Avalanche
“As difficult of a loss as I’ve ever been a part of.” – Pat Fitzgerald to ESPN
So what happened next? What was the result of the avalanche on the two programs?
Drew Stanton, the hero of the hour, would go on to be drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the NFL Draft. He has been a part of four different teams in the league, and currently is a free agent. CJ Bachér would end up starting 27 more games for the ’Cats before ending his college career in 2008. His name is still in the record books as one of Northwestern’s better performers at quarterback, finishing top-five in several single-season and career statistics, including the most passing yards in a single season (3,656 yards in 2007).
Michigan State would not win another game in 2006, and the school announced Coach Smith would be fired after the season following a 46-21 loss to Indiana, just a week after the comeback in Evanston. His successor, Mark Dantonio, would lead the Spartans to several successful years of football, including Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and a trip to the College Football Playoff in 2015. The comeback only said one thing: it doesn’t matter in the regular season.
And finally, Pat Fitzgerald. While the ’Cats didn’t make any splashes in 2006, the team would just keep getting better over time. In 2018, 12 years after losing his mentor and being on the losing end of the biggest comeback in NCAA history, Fitzgerald caused an avalanche of his own and put Northwestern back on the mountaintop, winning the Holiday Bowl over Utah after being down at halftime 20–3. After the game, Fitzgerald was asked about the rumors of him leaving for an NFL job, to which he responded:
“Hashtag ‘Go ’Cats,’ man. I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever.”
Maybe we’ll get back up there next year.