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Northwestern Rides Defense, Fourth Quarter Stop to 23-20 Win in East Lansing

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

When it comes to naming his player of the game this week, Pat Fitzgerald might want to give a long look to the Chicago Bears’ Charles “Peanut” Tillman, or at least to Tillman impersonator Jared Carpenter. Northwestern’s senior safety picked off an Andrew Maxwell pass and, in “Peanut” style, punched out the ball on fourth down of Michigan State’s final possession, leading NU to a 23-20 win in East Lansing.

“I think everybody in the country on defense has kind of been invigorated by Peanut Tillman, I really do,” Fitzgerald said. “We showed them those plays a couple of weeks ago in our bye week that he made. When you see what he did a couple of weeks ago, that really reinforces that you’ve got to go for the ball to win. Our turnover ratio, I think, over the years has been really solid, and that’s critical for winning Big Ten football games, especially on the road.”

Michigan State turned the ball over four times and turned it over on downs twice more in a game where the Northwestern defense stepped up when it needed to, flipping the script from last week’s loss to Michigan. Two of the stops – a fumble and a turnover on downs – came inside the one-yard line. The turnover on downs, in particular, was a momentum-changer, as NU stopped star Spartans running back Le’Veon Bell in the backfield for a loss.

“That was big-time,” linebacker David Nwabuisi said.

It’s been hard to call this defense “big-time” too often this year, but in one of the biggest moments of the game, the Wildcats delivered. That didn’t happen last week, and NU was determined to finally finish a big game.

“The guys responded when we got back off the bus a week ago from Ann Arbor,” Fitzgerald said.
“That’s when this game started.”

The defense, especially, responded with a 180-degree turnaround. After all, that’s what is needed in a Big Ten slugfest like this one, when the score was 6-5 at halftime. Fitzgerald often uses the “team win” cliché, but it was very fitting on Saturday, as just about everyone stepped up to make big plays on the defense. Three players combined for three sacks for 27 yards, and the vaunted NU rush defense proved itself worthy of the praise today – if it hadn’t already – holding the All-America caliber Bell to 4.2 yards per carry and keeping him out of the endzone.

For all the talk about the defense, the Northwestern offense delivered in the clutch, as well, and it did so without its two star players. Running back Venric Mark tried to play after sustaining an injury last week against Michigan, but he had to leave early on, while quarterback Kain Colter was “a little banged up” late in the game. That left the game in the hands of Trevor Siemian.

Siemian has spent most of the year as NU’s two-minute drill guy, but he delivered when his number was called.

“We’ve been saying this all year, we believe we have two quarterbacks we can win with,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a lot better situation than, probably better than a lot of NFL teams. It gives us a chance in every game.”

Siemian threw a touchdown pass to superback Tim Riley and found freshman superback Dan Vitale for a 41-yard pass downfield. It was Vitale’s first 100-yard game and Riley’s first touchdown catch since last year’s bowl game. But in a game where the Wildcats found heroes in the most unlikely places, both plays seemed fitting.

This wasn’t your typical Northwestern win; heck, it’s wasn’t your typical football game – “I thought the White Sox were playing the Tigers,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like a baseball game.”

But a win is a win, and no matter how NU got it, this will be a lot more pleasant bus ride than the one back from Ann Arbor.