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Northwestern holds off Michigan State to Improve to 8-3

WNUR’s Kevin Harris recaps Northwestern’s victory over Michigan State.

Photo Courtesy of Mike Carter-AP Presswire

After a heartbreak overtime loss last week against the Michigan Wolverines, Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) was able to rebound this week and pull out a 23-20 victory in East Lansing against Michigan State (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon. “The guys responded when we got off the bus after Ann Arbor. That’s when this game started. […] To see the way the program responded is a terrific credit to our players,” Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. But with Venric Mark and Kain Colter both getting banged up and exiting the game early, the game certainly wasn’t an easy victory for the Wildcats.

Luckily, the Northwestern defense came up big against the Spartans with one of its best performances of the season. In the first half the NU defense managed to hold MSU to only 5 points thanks to a fumble recovery by defensive-lineman Sean McEvilly on the goal line as Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell attempted to sneak the ball into the end zone. Midway through the second quarter after Michigan State was able to drive down the field 70-yards to the Northwestern 1-yard-line, the defense stepped up and had two big stops, stuffing star running back Le’Veon Bell twice and forcing a turnover on downs to keep the score 5-3 MSU. Bell was still able to rack up 133 yards on 32 carries for a 4.2 average by the end of the game.

The Cats’ defense didn’t let up in the second half either, forcing three turnovers and managing to prevent another 4th quarter collapse like fans have suffered through during NU’s three losses this season. On the third play of the second half, David Nwabuisi picked off Maxwell before running it back 43-yards for the first touchdown of the game, putting Northwestern up 13-5. “I started to see the big old linemen coming my way and I happened to weave through them,” Nwabuisi said. Later in the half Demetrius Dugar forced a fumble (recovered by Chi Chi Ariguzo) after a 26-yard completion from Maxwell to wide-receiver Aaron Burbridge. And finally, just a couple drives later at the end of the 3rd quarter, Jared Carpenter came up with a huge interception just as the Spartans were entering Northwestern territory. But despite the four Michigan State turnovers, Northwestern was leading only 23-20 with 7:23 to play in the game, leading many to fear a repeat of last week. But the defense once again stepped up with two big stops, including a four-and-out on the Spartan’s last possession of the game.

While the NU defense shined at Spartan Stadium, the offense struggled most of the game. In the first quarter, the Cats came out strong after receiving the opening kickoff, driving 68-yards down field to set up a 24-yard Jeff Budzein field goal. Northwestern didn’t score again until there were 47 seconds remaining in the first half, when Budzein converted a 43-yard field goal to make the score 6-5 in favor of Northwestern at the half. “I thought the White Sox were playing the Tigers,” Fitz said when asked about the low-scoring half that involved a Michigan State safety by William Gholston and Max Bullough.

The Wildcats were without Mark the entire second-half and as a result were forced to rely on their passing game. After Michigan State responded to the Nwabuisi pick-six by quickly driving 65-yards for a touchdown and a two-point conversion (to make the score 13-13), Northwestern was able to answer right back. On the ensuing drive the Cats marched 73-yards, thanks to two big passing plays from Trevor Siemian to true-freshman wide-receiver Dan Vitale, that was capped off with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Colter to Tim Riley to put the Wildcats back in the lead. Northwestern would only score once more in the game when Budzein would kick yet another field goal, this time from 27 yards, to give Northwestern the lead once and for all.

But although Colter and Siemian were able to combine for 246 yards through the air and connect with five different receivers three or more times NU struggled to move the ball throughout the game. In fact they were 3-14 on third-down conversions, punted the ball eight times, and only tallied 57 yards on the ground (half of which came from Colter) as they lost the time of possession battle by about 10 minutes. The one bright spot for the Northwestern offense was Vitale who had a break out game with nine receptions for 110 yards. “We released a lot of demons this game,” Vitale said. “(Dan) will be one of my favorites,” Fitz said in a postgame interview. “He was one of the easiest guys I ever recruited. When the opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it.” Vitale himself was al

Northwestern will return to campus with eight wins under their belt as they prepare to take on the University of Illinois (2-9, 0-7 Big Ten) at Ryan Field next Saturday in a rivalry matchup. NU has a number of players currently on the injury list due to the “culmination of the entire season” according to Fitz, but will try to get fully healthy for next week. With a ninth win the Cats would most likely position themselves to go to the Outback Bowl in Tampa Bay or the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.

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