RECAP: ‘Cats Start Sluggish, Finish Strong, Thrash Spartans 54-40

7 minutes into the football game, Northwestern trailed Michigan State 14-0. 

Thankfully for the Wildcats, they play 60, and the final 53 went a lot better than the opening 7.  

Northwestern rebounded from a poor start, and used a 33-3 spurt during the middle quarters combined with a strong finishing performance after a Spartan rally to defeat Michigan State 54-37 on Saturday afternoon in East Lansing. 

After the Spartans housed an interception of Clayton Thorson to take a 14-0 lead, Northwestern rallied for a 33-3 spurt that included a rushing touchdown from Justin Jackson, 2 passing touchdowns from Clayton Thorson, and another from Thorson on the ground. While the Spartans rallied back to cut the Wildcat lead to 33-31, Solomon Vault returned the ensuing kick-off all the way to extend the NU lead back out to 40-31. With the result still in question, Northwestern ripped off a six minute drive that culminated in Jackson scoring on a third and long rush to build the lead to 47-31. The Spartans answered with another touchdown, but the two point conversion attempt was stopped, and Thorson then found Austin Carr on fourth down to give NU a 54-37 lead. Michigan State picked up a late field goal to push the final tally to 54-40.

After a shaky start, Clayton Thorson bounced back to finish the afternoon 27-35 with 281 yards and 3 touchdowns. Most of Thorson’s success came to Austin Carr, his favorite target, who finished with 11 catches for 130 yards and a pair of touchdowns. As well, Justin Jackson had himself a day, rushing for 188 yards on 34 carries, adding a brace of touchdowns himself for good measure. 

For the second game in a row, Northwestern’s offense was humming. Against Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke and Nebraska, the Wildcats scored just 65 points. The last two times out, against the Hawkeyes and Spartans, the ‘Cats put up 92. If Northwestern can continue its offensive rhythm, the Wildcats could still yet challenge the top of the Big Ten West, and find themselves in a New Year’s Day Bowl. 

For Michigan State, though the Spartans jumped out to the early lead, they watched their offense stagnate, forcing coach Mark Dantonio into a change under center, with Tyler O’Connor coming on. O’Connor had success on his first two drives, which both led to touchdowns, but Northwestern was able to solve his style of play as the afternoon went on, including a crucial interception when the score was 40-31 to firmly return the momentum to Northwestern’s side. Now, the Spartans find themselves a disappointing 2-4, a far distance from last year’s Big Ten Champions. Michigan State will try to get back on track against Maryland next week. 

Just as against Iowa, it wasn’t always a pretty performance from Northwestern, but as Pat Fitzgerald will always tell you, winning on the road in conference is never easy, but now Northwestern has done it twice in a row. With their record back level at 3-3 midway through the season, the ‘Cats can look towards the back half of their schedule, and see some opportunities to challenge the 8 or 9 win threshold that many felt was out of their reach following an 0-2 start. 

The 54 points represents Northwestern’s highest total since a 59 point outburst against the Indiana Hoosiers in 2011. 

Next up, Northwestern will host Indiana on homecoming in Evanston. That game will kick-off next weekend at 11 AM right here on WNUR. 

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