By Dave Peck
Evanston, Ill.- No more than one week ago, it appeared as though the quarterback question in Evanston had its answer. Hunter Johnson looked sharp in his outing vs. UNLV, and the Wildcats seemed primed and ready to capture their fourth-straight win over Michigan State. Just seven days later here we sit, watching old highlights of Clayton Thorson while eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s following Saturday afternoon’s 31-10 loss.
Before we start searching the far-off hills for an answer at QB, let’s pump the brakes and give Michigan State its due credit, specifically to Mark Dantonio who Saturday broke the program record for most career wins as a head coach with no. 110.
The MSU defense did a great job limiting the Wildcats’ run game to just 139 total yards despite the return of Isaiah Bowser. That number looks even less impressive when you consider that the ‘Cats posted 85 rush yards in the fourth quarter with the outcome of the game already in hand. With one dimension of the offense struggling, it was up to Hunter Johnson and the passing game to keep things close. Unfortunately for Northwestern, that did not happen.
The Spartans came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, slicing their way down the field on a mix of Elijah Collins rushes and Brian Lewerke passes. Collins capped it off with a touchdown run to make it 7-0.
After going three-and-out on its first possession, the Wildcats ran into some luck when Cody White fumbled the ensuing punt, giving NU a first-and-10 from the Spartan 35. After a few chunk plays, Northwestern had second-and-goal from the one, looking primed to square up the score.
“We moved the ball pretty well at times,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald, “and then there were just opportunities that we missed.”
No doubt the Wildcats missed an opportunity after failing to get in the end zone from inside the one on three straight plays. The ‘Cats did win the overall possession battle 31:46 to 28:14, but could not muster up a consistent level of production.
For a moment, the Northwestern showed signs of solid complimentary football. The defense started to get stops by putting more pressure on Lewerke, and Johnson began settling in as he spread the ball to a number of different receivers.
Short gains on throws to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees put the offense in third-and-manageable situations that enabled less predictable play calling from Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall. NU’s only scoring drive of the first half ended with a 39-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander to make it a 7-3 contest.
After another defensive stop, Northwestern’s offense picked up right where it left off, mixing in short passes to the likes of Lees and Chiaokhiao-Bowman once more, but that’s all the Spartans were willing to surrender. On a third-and-long play just minutes before the half, Josiah Scott intercepted Johnson on a deep ball down the NU sideline which proved to be another turning point in the game.
“Obviously the pick late in the first half, we can’t have that. We got a guy open in the flat, we’ve got to be able to take care of the football better,” Fitzgerald said.
Michigan State took over around mid-field with plenty of time to bleed the clock and add to its lead, which it did on an 11-yard pass from Lewerke to Cody White with just :24 seconds on the board.
As inconsistent as the Northwestern offense looked in the first half, a 14-3 deficit with 30 minutes to play certainly wasn’t an impossible margin. Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of winning “the first five to 10 minutes of the second half,” but Michigan State only added to its lead scoring 10 points in the third quarter.
Offensively, Johnson and the rest of the unit just never found their groove. Northwestern failed to score in the third and consistently gave the ball to Michigan State (in part due to a lackluster special teams performance) right around midfield on three-straight drives, two of which resulted in points. The Wildcat offense finished with 265 total yards while the Spartans garnered 337.
With Michigan State leading 24-3 to start the fourth, and with little promise being shown by the offense, Fitzgerald sat Johnson and turned to Aidan Smith:
“We were sputtering a little bit…it was kind of like going to the bullpen, see if we could get a little bit of a spark.”
In his first appearance in four years, Smith finished just 4-11 for 38 yards and two interceptions. Johnson ended the day 15-26 for 88 yards and one pick.
It’d be irresponsible to ignore the question marks that arose from this game, most notably the unnerving quarterback situation and also the health of receiver Bennett Skowronek. The senior captain limped off the field late in the fourth, but Pat Fitzgerald has certainly seen it all in his 12-plus seasons at the helm:
“I’ve unfortunately had my nose bloodied before, and so have a lot of guys in that room…you’ve got to stick together…you’ve got to point thumbs not fingers, and you’ve got to work hard.”
A 31-10 loss to the Spartans doesn’t raise white flags in Evanston—they’ve been in a similar boat before. If anything, Saturday’s game set off some smoke alarms that can be turned off…maybe.
Northwestern (1-2) will head to Wisconsin next weekend to face the Badgers (3-0), kickoff set for 11 a.m. CST.