Northwestern (4-3, 1-2) dropped their third game of the 2009 season in East Lansing to the Spartans (4-3, 3-1), thanks to a few miscues and a solid day from MSU QB Kirk Cousins (281 passing yards, 2 TDs, no turnovers), by a final score of 24-14 .
The Wildcats' senior WR and former walk-on Zeke Markshausen had a career day with 16 catches for 111 yards and a score, but it wasn't enough to put Northwestern on top.
Michigan State looked to go up early with a drive down to the Northwestern 1-yard line, but the NU defense held on fourth-and-goal and kept the Spartans off of the scoreboard.
The Wildcats struck first, with a Mike Kafka to Andrew Brewer passing touchdown in the second quarter (Brewer's fourth receiving TD of the season).
Then with the Spartans driving and time winding down in the first half, NU recovered a fumble and ran out the clock to go into the locker room with a 7-0 lead after another solid defensive effort. Unfortunately, NU was not able to sustain their first-half success.
MSU came out in the second half and scored on their first four possessions, putting the ball in the end zone three times and racking up 217 of their 375 yards of total offense on those four drives.
That put the Wildcats in a 24-7 hole early in the fourth quarter, and without any explosion plays going in their favor, the 'Cats weren't able to dig out of it.
Without the ability to run the ball effectively and with the offensive line unable to hold back the tide, Northwestern had to resort to the short passing game, which was successful at times, but not consistent enough to propel NU to victory.
The turning point of the day likely came in the third quarter, with NU driving to about the MSU 30-yard line on the first drive of the second half.
SB Drake Dunsmore caught the ball with enough yards for a first down when he was stood up and pushed backwards by a gang of MSU tacklers who stripped the ball and recovered it.
The play was likely one that could have been whistled dead for forward progress, but Dunsmore did not hold onto the football. The Spartans took the opportunity to tie the game and never looked back, racking up 24 unanswered points.
The NU defense looked strong throughout the first half, coming up with that huge goal-line stand on the first drive of the game, and grabbing another takeaway before the half to keep MSU off the scoreboard, but they would not have a pretty third quarter.
Although the 'Cats contained the Michigan State ground game, allowing just 94 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry, the Spartans were allowed to do most of their damage through the air.
QB Kirk Cousins had an excellent day, going 21-of-31 for 281 yards and 2 TDs through the air, including a 47-yard strike to WR Blair White, which came on blown coverage by the usually dependable senior NU CB Sherrick McManis.
This, like the 'Cats' other two losses on the year, was one where NU had a chance, but let a couple of mistakes put them in a hole from which they couldn't dig out.
The offense put together some nice drives, but was generally too inconsistent to put the Wildcats on top. And turnovers ended up playing a big part, as NU had a -1 turnover margin, while MSU scored 14 of their points off of NU turnovers.
Although this loss puts Northwestern in a precarious spot in the battle for a bowl berth, they will have a chance to turn it around next week at home against a struggling Indiana squad.
Player of the Game:
MSU QB Kirk Cousins (21-of-31 passing for 281 yards and 2 TDs) Cousins did what he needed to do to pull off the win with the Wildcats effectively neutralizing the Spartans' run game for most of the day.
Cousins had a lot of help from the offensive line, though, which didn't allow a sack and never really allowed any NU defender to get close to him all day long. During MSU's four scoring possessions to start the second half, Cousins went 10-of-14 and racked up 162 of his passing yards on the day.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
WR Zeke Markshausen (16 catches for 111 yards and 1 TD receiving) The former walk-on caught his first collegiate TD and had a career day, ending up just one reception short of the NU record for most in a single game. With NU's running game once again once again being shut down, the Wildcats relied on him in the short passing game to make up for the lack of the ground game.
WR Andrew Brewer (8 catches for 104 yards and 1 TD receiving) After relatively quiet games over the past two weeks, Brewer was vital for the NU passing attack, particularly in the middle of the field. His TD in the second quarter put the 'Cats on top, and he had some important catches in the middle of the field to sustain other drives.
QB Mike Kafka (34-of-47 passing for 291 yards and 2 TDs, 15 rushes for 57 yards) With the running game struggling, Kafka was NU's only option on offense, and he put up solid numbers and did not turn the ball over on the day. He eluded pressure time after time and bought the 'Cats second chances more than once against the Spartans' D.
Offensive Line: There were no holes to run through (even without sacks, NU averaged a measly 3.6 yards per carry, with the longest run from an NU RB, 18 yards from Stephen Simmons, coming on a meaningless play just before halftime. Then there is pass protection, where they yielded three sacks, two QB hurries, and numerous other times that Kafka eluded a sack with his legs.
Running Game: Despite a desire to run the football, NU just has not been able to do so, and much of that is thanks to poor blocking up front. The NU running backs haven't built any confidence, though, with Simmons being NU's only effective runner on the year. He had a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, but had only five rushes on the day.
Limiting Big Plays: Yes, starting S Brendan Smith was out with an injured hand, but there was no excuse for the blown coverage on MSU's 47 yard TD, and Smith's replacement, Jared Carpenter, didn't get enough depth on a 22-yard MSU TD pass. Oh, and the tackling woes continued, especially evident on Larry Caper's 22-yard TD scamper that effectively put the game out of reach for the 'Cats.
Special Teams: With the special teams making big plays over the past two games, they disappointed in this one, including turning the ball over on a kickoff return that MSU promptly turned into seven points. P/K Stefan Demos averaged a measly 32.5 yards per punt, punt returner Hunter Bates muffed a ball that he thankfully recovered, and the 'Cats allowed a 47 yard kick return to start the game.
Line of Scrimmage Battles: MSU clearly came up on top when comparing the play of the teams' lines. The offensive line yielded no sacks, while their DL sacked Kafka three times and put pressure on him many more times while easily containing the NU run game. Yes, NU's defensive front kept the MSU run game in check but could never put enough pressure on Cousins to keep MSU from torching NU through the air.
Red Zone Defense: Amazingly, the Wildcats D did admirably in the red zone, allowing just one score in three chances for MSU, with the only score being a field goal. Unfortunately, MSU's had three touchdowns that came from outside of the red zone.
Third Down Conversions: NU converted half of its 16 third downs on the day, but in the end had way too many of them, losing the ball on downs twice and punting the ball six more times. Although MSU went just 5-of-14 on third downs, they had the benefit of six plays that went 20 yards or longer (compared to just one for NU).
This loss was a big downer for NU's bowl hopes as the 'Cats have just two "winnable" games remaining on their schedule: the dates against Indiana and Illinois.
But before worrying about that, the 'Cats must re-focus and face a struggling Indiana squad next week for Homecoming that provides a perfect rebound opportunity.
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