There goes the chance of a perfect season. No. 8 Northwestern (5-1) put up a fight but lost 29-20 to Michigan State (2-3) in an ugly game. With the loss, Northwestern likely eliminated their chance at making the College Football Playoff and put their goal of winning the Big Ten West on hold.
It was a historic week for the ’Cats as they were ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, their best in a poll since the ’95 postseason, and No. 11 in the AP polls, their highest in AP since ’96. Blake Gallagher and Brandon Joseph earned player of the week honors from the Big Ten, and they were coming off a strong win versus No. 10 Wisconsin, picking up their first win over a Top-10 opponent since 2011.
Northwestern quickly found themselves in a 17-0 hole, but even after scoring 20 unanswered points, the Spartans fought back with two consecutive field goals and a last second touchdown. The Wildcats made many self-inflicted mistakes, which may have cost them the game.
“Credit Michigan State, two weeks to prepare, they had some little wrinkles that we did some adjusting to, but a lot of self-inflicted wounds on our end,” Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “Turnovers, we gave up two explosive pass plays that led to points that we've been so good on all year … Credit Michigan State, they made the plays that winning teams make … really disappointing the outcome of the game, but we have all of our goals in front of us.”
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 21 of 43 passes with 210 yards and 2 interceptions, in addition to a rushing touchdown–definitely not his strongest game of the year.
Over the last few games, Northwestern has had trouble establishing the run, and the Nov. 28 game was no exception. Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser combined for 69 yards on 19 attempts. On pivotal third downs, the Wildcats failed to convert and could not successfully run the ball. On the bright side, the trio of Kyric McGowan, Riley Lees and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman continued to produce, combining for 16 catches and 161 yards.
"As a group, we already said it, we’ve just got to be better at playing situational football,” Ramsey said after the game. “Defense makes a play here, a play there, and we’ve got to go capitalize on that. There's small things that show up every week. So I'm not gonna pinpoint one thing. Each team gives you a different challenge every week, and there's things to improve on after each and every game, so definitely a lot to improve on both individually and collectively.”
Coming off an extremely strong defensive performance, Northwestern was poised to continue its stellar play in East Lansing. Given that the Spartans had scored a mere 7 points in their last two games, being shut out in their last five quarters, today seemed like an easy matchup on the defensive front. Rocky Lombardi, who has struggled this season with decision making and accuracy issues, beat Northwestern as a runner.
To begin the game, Lombardi threw a 75-yard bomb to Jalen Nailor for a touchdown and added on to their lead with a field goal off an interception from Ramsey on their next possession. At the start of the second quarter, the Spartans capped off a 13-play, 85-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Lombardi to Jayden Reed to make the score 17-0.
On the subsequent drive, Northwestern was finally able to put some points on the board as Charlie Kuhbander nailed a 42-yard field goal. With their next possession, Kuhbander hit a 32-yard field goal to narrow the lead to 17-6 to end the first half.
Ramsey started out strong on the first drive of the second half, finishing a 10-play, 75-yard series with a rushing touchdown on an important fourth-and-goal. This score cut the Spartans’ lead, and the ’Cats were starting to look like the team Evanston has loved to watch the past five weeks. With strong defensive play, Northwestern was able to take the lead at the start of the fourth quarter with a Cam Porter touchdown run to make the score 20-17.
After that drive, the offense seemed flat and turned the ball over. On the next defensive series, Paddy Fisher intercepted Lombardi and set up the offense with great field position.
Unfortunately, on the first play, Kyric McGowan mishandled a reverse handoff and fumbled the ball right back to the Spartans, allowing them to tie the game with a 44-yard field goal.
“You’ve got to do the things that winners do,” Fitzgerald said. “Ball security is critical to success and being consistently successful, and our inability to do that obviously leads to points, the end of the game leads to points … it's not playing complimentary football, and it makes it really tough to win.”
Later in the fourth, with just over six minutes remaining, Ramsey threw his second interception to MSU’s Shakur Brown, giving the Spartans great field position to kick the eventual game-winning field goal. With the score 23-20, Northwestern was not able to move the ball on their ensuing possession, and defensively they could not stop Rocky Lombardi.
In what was easily his best game of the season, Lombardi sealed the win with his legs and ran for a first down a crucial 3rd and 8 with 2:40 remaining. With no timeouts left, this conversion allowed the Spartans to basically run out the clock, giving Northwestern the ball with 10 seconds left in the game. On the final play, Michigan State recovered a fumble in the end zone, ending the game with a score of 29-20.
Next week, Northwestern will have an unscheduled bye, as their game against Minnesota (2-3) was canceled due to a COVID outbreak within the Minnesota program. The ’Cats will still have a shot to clinch the West Division, however: if at least three games are played, the average will be enough to send Northwestern to Indianapolis on Dec. 19.
“I'm going to be aggressive, because I believe in our guys wholeheartedly and I believe they're gonna make those plays as we coach them better,” Fitzgerald said. “Sorry to get the loss, really disappointing for all of our great fans, but most of all, I'm disappointed for our guys we got to coach them better, and we will, and get back to work.”
Now we wait.
*Thumbnail courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.