Any optimism that remained for Northwestern Football after a Week 1 loss to Stanford is now gone.
In 2018, Northwestern had an X factor that followed them through gritty wins against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State. Thus far in 2019, that X factor is gone. With a packed, 11 a.m. conference opener at Ryan Field - ideal conditions for Pat Fitzgerald - Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 B1G) fell completely flat, falling 31-10 to Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 B1G).
“We thought we had a good plan going in,” said Fitzgerald in his postgame presser. “There’s just opportunities that we missed. We weren’t able to sustain drives, sustain first downs.”
In a battle of two strong defenses (with the over/under as low as 35.5 at kickoff), Northwestern failed to get any offensive momentum, made costly turnovers, and quickly erased any confidence that they were up to the challenge. The game was virtually over early on in the third quarter - in fact, the drubbing was so bad that Fitz replaced Hunter Johnson (15-26, 88 yds, 1 INT) with junior backup QB Aidan Smith (4-11, 38 yds), who promptly proceeded to throw two interceptions.
“All of our quarterbacks are young from an experience standpoint,” said Fitz. “[We were] seeing if we could get a spark in this game and also big picture, get experience for our quarterbacks.”
The obvious takeaway: right now, the Wildcats are bad. With upcoming games against Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Iowa, a 1-6 start seems almost probable. Fitz’s teams have made a habit out of significantly improving as the season progresses, but this offense has more holes than in previous seasons, and the competition in the Big Ten West is stiffer.
As for today’s performance, the stats speak for themselves. Some of the more glaring Northwestern team numbers:
-Passing yards: 126
-Yards per reception: 6.6
Thanks to a few nice scrambles for first down by Johnson, drive-extending MSU penalties and a handful of 3-and-outs forced by the NU defense, the ‘Cats actually led the time of possession battle. They could not translate that into a touchdown until a 2-yard garbage time score from Drake Anderson (17 rush, 91 yds) in the 58th minute of the game.
MSU took charge early, with QB Brian Lewerke (18-31, 228 yds, 3 TD) leading a mechanical 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. From 5 yards out, freshman Elijah Collins somehow emerged from the pile to give MSU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish:
From there, the Northwestern defense flexed their muscles, holding the Spartans scoreless for the next 5 drives. However, the offense failed to capitalize, to say the least:
(The field goal drive was aided by a costly MSU pass interference call).
The most excruciating possession was the second. After a muffed punt recovered by Travis Whillock put Northwestern in Spartan territory, the Wildcats drove to the MSU 6. On First & Goal, Isaiah Bowser initially appeared to score before replay confirmed that he was down at the one-yard line. The Michigan State defense prevented Bowser from scoring on the next two plays, and on 4th & Goal, offensive coordinator Mick McCall and company decided to run a speed option that went horribly wrong.
The series prompted a wave of tweets from frustrated fans calling for the firing of McCall. While it doesn’t appear as if McCall is going anywhere soon, pressure will continue to mount as long as an offense led by a 5-star quarterback looks inept.
Northwestern’s best drive of the half came on the ensuing possession, as Johnson found Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (3 rec, 28 yds) for an 18-yard reception and Bennett Skowronek (3 rec, 38 yds) drew a pass interference call to push the ‘Cats into the red zone. The highlight of the game for Northwestern came at the end of this drive, when Charlie Kuhbander nailed a fluttering 39-yarder into the wind to put the Wildcats on the board.
Skowronek would leave the game late in the 4th quarter with an apparent injury. No details are available at this time.
The wheels began to come off late in the second quarter when Johnson threw an ill-advised pass on 3rd & 20 that was intercepted by Josiah Scott. Lewerke and the MSU offense regained their groove on an 11-play, 62-yard touchdown drive. On a key 3rd & 10 on the NU 11, Fitz called two consecutive timeouts before Cody White (4 rec, 70 yds) made a nice snag in the end zone.
“We’re trying to see how they’re gonna attack,” said defensive end Joe Gaziano of the play. "For me, it’s just a matter of getting lined up and analyzing the formation.”
Any halftime adjustments Northwestern made did not work. The offense produced two 3-and-outs to start the half, while Lewerke engineered two 10+ play drives (one ending with a missed field goal). The game felt out of reach after a Matt Seybert touchdown extended the MSU lead to 21-3.
Later, this happened:
There are few positives for Northwestern from any phase of the game thus far this season. The quest for four straight wins against MSU was rejected in emphatic fashion, leaving Northwestern scrambling to find answers as revenge-seeking Big Ten West foes await.