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Northwestern leads Michigan State, 6-5, despite losing the battle in the trenches

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

First Half Leaders:
Keith Mumphrey (Michigan State) Four receptions, 56 yards
Dion Sims (Michigan State) Two receptions, 66 yards
Kain Colter (Northwestern) 11-of-17 for 67 yards

Northwestern drove down the field beautifully on its first drive, but managed little on offense from then on. Trevor Siemian eventually had to spell Kain Colter at quarterback. Meanwhile, the Wildcats lost the battle of the trenches on both sides of the ball, allowing Le'Veon Bell to net bigger and bigger first-down runs, while struggling to establish their own rushing attack. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' quarterbacks were under duress all half long. All in all, they were fortunate to take a 6-5 lead into halftime. The Spartans would have led heading into the locker room, but for a failed fourth-and-goal run and a fumble in the red zone. Here's my drive-by-drive summary of the first half.

For all of the acclaim Michigan State's defense has received, Northwestern managed to drive down the field with a little running room and a little trickery. The Wildcats went to their old standby early, with a shovel pass to Dan Vitale for 13 yards, their most successful shovel pass of the season. Colter then raced out of the pocket for an easy first down to push Northwestern past midfield, and Demetrius Fields was shifty on a screen pass to the left sideline, juking one defender to set up an eventual Jeff Budzien 24-yard field goal. Vitale caught three balls on the drive, comprising a screen pass and two shovel passes up the middle. Fields was also reintegrated in the offense after a rather silent Saturday his last time out.

NORTHWESTERN 3 - MICHIGAN STATE 0 (8:53 1st Quarter)

Northwestern got off to a good start in its run defense, stopping Le'Veon Bell in the backfield for a loss of three. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell then went four wide but the protection was awful allowing defensive end Tyler Scott to come in easily and sprint in front of Maxwell's pass for an emphatic deflection. Maxwell's third-down pass sailed long, ending a shaky first possession for the Spartans.

Northwestern nearly converted a third-and-long, as quarterback Kain Colter rolled left and spotted his receiver open down the left sideline, but throwing against his body, the righty was unable to generate the necessary power, and free safety Kurtis Drummond deflected it away. It could have been worse. Drummond was in prime position for a pick.

On Michigan State's second drive, Bell had a little more momentum, running around the right end through a slew of tackles for three yards. On second down, Maxwell had plenty of time to step up in the pocket and find Dion Sims over the middle of the field. His catch went for 44 yards, helped by a huge missed tackle in the secondary and a considerable struggle in bringing the 285-pounder down. On third down, Maxwell generated absolutely no momentum up the middle, fumbling the ball, and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly pounced on it to ruin Michigan State's shot at any points.

The fumble set Northwestern up in the shadow of its own end zone. Colter held onto the ball way too long on second down, as he rolled right then tried to buy time. That would have been fine anywhere else on the field, but with no room to run around, William Gholston and Max Bullough brought Colter down for a safety.

NORTHWESTERN 3 - MICHIGAN STATE 2 (2:43 1st Quarter)

Michigan State benefitted from excellent field position after an incredibly short kickoff, a five-yard offsides penalty on Northwestern and an 18-yard return. Beginning at their own 44-yard line, they turned again to Bell, who continued to bounce off tacklers, including a nifty spin move on third down, to give the Spartans a first down past midfield. Safety Ibraheim Campbell continued his impressive sophomore season with a decisive pass breakup on a pass intended for Bennie Fowler. Michigan State continued to have success on 10-yard outs, however, as Maxwell found Keith Mumphery for a first down. Michigan State's receivers were undeniably physical, frequently stiff-arming Northwestern's defenders. The Spartans continued to drive downfield, with a near touchdown on second down, as Maxwell found Aaron Burrbridge deep in the end zone, but Burrbridge was unable to come in inbounds. Sophomore cornerback Daniel Jones was a little shaky on the play, as he missed the punchout, but he was bailed out when Burrbridge couldn't keep his feet in. Conroy converted a field goal to give Michigan State the lead.

MICHIGAN STATE 5 - NORTHWESTERN 3 (12:52 2nd Quarter)

Northwestern's mini-slump continued as Tony Jones had a very hard time stooping down and picking up the bouncing kickoff. The Wildcats thus had to start at their own 15-yard line. On third-and-long, Northwestern went five wide, allowing Michigan State to send an unhindered man on the blitz. Colter stepped up and appeared to have room to run but Denzel Drone made an excellent play to wrap him up after a small gain, forcing the Wildcats to punt.

Bell continued to have more and more success on the ground, picking up seven yards on the first play of the drive. On Michigan State's next first down, Bell jumped over a would-be tackler for another solid first-down gain, this time a gain of five yards. Maxwell looked deep to Burbridge later on in the drive, and Daniel Jones did well to punch the ball out of Burbridge's hands, but the secondary failed to stay in good favor long, as Maxwell found Sims wide open down the middle of the field. Northwestern had a chance to stop Michigan State in the red zone, but Maxwell had far too much time on third down, eventually escaping left and finding Mumphrey down the left sideline. Overall, Maxwell was given plenty of time to survey his options, and even wave his receivers around, all half. Finally, on third-and-goal, Le'Veon Bell surged forward, putting the ball well out in front of him. It appeared to cross the goal line, but the referees ruled him down inches before the line, and the call stood upon further review, setting up fourth-and-goal. On fourth-and-goal, the Wildcats had no doubt what was coming, surging past the offensive line, and bringing Bell down well behind the line of scrimmage.

Kain Colter was much quicker releasing the ball this time around, as Northwestern took over the ball on its own four-yard line. On third-and-long, Colter did well to find Christian Jones along the right sideline on a beautiful throw. Still, Michigan State's pressure clearly had an effect, as Northwestern was forced to leave a running back in to block for Colter. Even so, Colter had to get the ball out quickly. So, Northwestern turned to screens, finding Dan Vitale for a first down, for his fourth catch of the game. Colter later had a chance at Kyle Prater, who was wide open down the left side of the field, but Colter's throw on the run was wild and beyond Prater's diving reach. With a third-and-seven near midfield, Colter was very nearly picked. Linebacker Kyler Elsworth made some play to reach his arm in and break it up.

Michigan State took over with a chance to run a two-minute drill. Still, it was Northwestern that almost did the scoring as Chi Chi Ariguzo had a golden shot at a pick six. Instead, the ball whistled through his outstretched arms. On third down, the Wildcats capped off the defensive stop with a huge 11-yard sack of Maxwell, bringing three defenders in on the quarterback. That set Northwestern up to get the ball around midfield with approximately 1:30 to go.

With a fine punt return by Tony Jones, dodging left around the tackle and running over a defender, Northwestern took over on Michigan State's 42-yard line. Trevor Siemian also came in for this final drive of the half, completing his first two passes, including a quick pass over the middle to Tony Jones for a huge gain. Then, Siemian threw an awful pass down the right sideline, followed by a delay-of-game penalty, eliminating whatever good graces previously existed. Northwestern's offensive line had a really rough first half, not only with the safety, but with pass protection all half long. Siemian also messed up a third-down pass over the middle, when he finally had some time to survey the field and threw well behind Cameron Dickinson. Jeff Buzien bailed Northwestern out with a 43-yard field goal.

NORTHWESTERN 6 - MICHIGAN STATE 5 (0:41 2nd Quarter)

Keith Mumphery continued to torture Northwestern with a double juke down the middle of the field setting up a big catch. But Dan Conroy was unable to convert a long field goal, sending it wide left of the uprights.