As the rain cascaded on East Lansing before kickoff, one could sense the ominous destruction that portended the next painful chapter of Northwestern’s (2-3, 2-1 B1G) football season. On the heels of three consecutive home defeats, the Wildcats badly needed a boost to revive their quickly-crumbling year against #20 Michigan State (3-2, 1-1 B1G). Thanks to a magisterial QB performance by Clayton Thorson, second-half points (!), and a game-saving 4th and 1 stand, the ‘Cats have found the season-defining win that may turn the ship around, beating MSU 29-19.
On a day in which the vaunted Michigan State run defense held the Wildcats to a dismal eight rushing yards, Clayton Thorson played his most complete game of the season, going 31/47 with 373 yards and 3 touchdowns. Neither team got off to a solid start; Michigan State pulled ahead on a 27-yard Matt Coghlin field goal with under a minute left in the first quarter. Northwestern, in what turned out to be a trend throughout the game, responded successfully on a long touchdown pass from Thorson to Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard score 41 seconds later. In a defensive mix-up, MSU’s outside corner played the McGowan only to the first-down marker, but no safety help arrived as the corner left to cover a crossing route. McGowan blazed down the sideline for an easy score to put the ‘Cats up 7-3.
Spartan QB Brian Lewerke was unable to generate any offense during the first half, as MSU began the game with four punts in their first five drives. Northwestern’s D-line did an excellent job stopping the run and forcing Lewerke into incomplete passes at key moments during their first few drives. The Wildcat D-line slowed Lewerke, La’Darius Jefferson, and the MSU O-line to the tune of only six points in the first half.
The second half started with another Wildcat touchdown as Thorson found JJ Jefferson on a go route for a 34-yard touchdown. Jefferson beat the outside corner but had to dive to reel in Thorson’s ball for his second touchdown of the season.
The third quarter began the way third quarters usually do for the ‘Cats: a lackluster offense combined with defensive breakdowns, blown leads, and calls for offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s head. MSU scored twice in the third quarter, the first on a reverse switch for all-purpose back Felton Davis, who took the sweep, swung inside, and blew by the Northwestern secondary for MSU’s first touchdown of the game. The Spartans failed the two-point conversion, and the ‘Cats held on to a 14-12 lead. Two plays later, Clayton Thorson threw an interception that may have been the most fitting microcosm of the season at that moment. Thorson’s pass hit running back Drake Anderson’s face mask and MSU DT Mike Panasiuk reached out to grab the ball at the line of scrimmage. MSU immediately drove down the field and scored on a fade route to Davis, whose second touchdown of the game gave MSU a 19-14 advantage and all the momentum.
Northwestern, however, flipped the script on the Spartans by engineering a 9-play, 75-yard drive in response. Thorson went 6-7 with 58 yards, and capped the drive off with a 21-yard strike to Cam Green for Thorson’s third touchdown of the afternoon. The ‘Cats made the two-point conversion on a Thorson pass to Solomon Vault to take a 22-19 lead.
Northwestern began the 4th quarter by holding the Spartans to another punt before marching down the field to the Northwestern 12, but Charlie Kuhbander’s field goal went wide right (sigh) and the Spartans took over. The ‘Cats defense, which had successfully bent but not broken all game came up huge with a 6-yard J.R. Pace tackle for loss on Spartan receiver Alante Thomas followed by a Trent Goens sack and an Earnest Brown IV pass breakup. Joe Gaziano, Brown IV, and the rest of the line overwhelmed the MSU O-line all night, and Lewerke was unable to get comfortable during the 4th quarter. Northwestern got the ball back at the MSU 35 yard line, but two Thorson incompletions led to MSU having one final crack at the Northwestern lead.
Lewerke completed his first pass for 9 yards, but the Northwestern front seven pressured Lewerke into two near-intentional grounding calls to bring up a pivotal 4th and 1 at the MSU 11. RB Conor Heyward took the ball up the gut, but the ‘Cats stood him up before CB Montre Hartage bought him down for no gain. The Spartans gave up the ball on downs, and three plays later Thorson scored on a QB sneak for a 29-19 lead to put the game out of reach with 2:51 left.
MSU drove down the field but turned the ball over once again on 4th and Goal as Lewerke’s fade throw fell incomplete. The ‘Cats defeated the Spartans for the third time in a row, and Thorson’s performance brings back memories of last season’s 9-game stretch of wins to close the year as well as the senior’s historically dominant performances against MSU.
Clayton Thorson had a good run against the Spartans. #Northwestern— BTNStatsGuys (@BTNStatsGuys) October 6, 2018
Career vs Michigan State
Comp Pct 70.0%
Pass Yards 1,010
Pass TD-INT 8-3
Comp 20+ Yards 12
Rush TD 3
Thorson spread the ball to seven different receivers and had four total touchdowns without a running game struggling to replace Jeremy Larkin. Northwestern’s 4th quarter performance should have fans excited as well. The Wildcats responded efficiently when MSU pulled within two and then took the lead, led by a defense missing stud linebacker Nate Hall and Greg Newsome II. Gaziano, Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher continued their steady play for the front seven, and Montre Hartage and JR Pace came up with huge stops down the stretch. It remains to be seen whether this game was a one-hit wonder or the first in a string of platinum hits a lá 2017, but Coach Fitz has proven once again that when the chips are down, never count Northwestern out.
The ‘Cats play next weekend against Nebraska (0-4) for homecoming at Ryan Field.