by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
EAST LANSING, MICH., — In the past, the Wildcats' secondary hadn't played the ball physically enough, losing numerous jump balls to opposing teams. Most haunting of all, Wolverines wide receiver Roy Roundtree came up with a last gasp catch last week to send Northwestern and Michigan to overtime in a game that the Wolverines would go on to win. On Saturday, in a 23-20 victory over Michigan State, Northwestern's secondary was plenty physical — perhaps a little too physical for some of the Spartan Stadium faithful. Demetrius Dugar's tight, and some might say early, blanket coverage on Aaron Burbridge drew howls from the Michigan State faithful. Coach Pat Fitzgerald will never mind that.
The statistics certainly speak in Northwestern's favor. Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed just 22-of-46 passes Saturday, representing less than 50 percent of his attempts. They also held Michigan State to 6.46 yards per attempt, while picking off Maxwell two times.
At the end of the day, however, there's no statistic in the world — on the playing field, anyway — that's more important than wins. Senior safety Jared Carpenter made sure the latter happened with multiple key breakups in the closing minutes of Saturday's game. None bigger than when Carpenter ripped the ball out of tight end Dion Sims' hands on fourth-and-10 to secure the game in the Wildcats' favor.
"I saw Jared hit him," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "I kind of saw the ball thinking about coming loose. I didn't think it was going to come out, but he kept on fighting for it and fighting for it until it finally came out. It was just relief like I said to finally get the win over Michigan State and to put Michigan behind us and keep moving forward."
The secondary's strong effort helped the Wildcats snap a four-game losing streak against the Spartans. In the past, their pass defense had been their Achilles heel against Michigan State. Former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins completed nearly 75 percent of his passes last year, averaging 10.7 yards per attempt, in Michigan State's 31-17 win over Northwestern. The year before, Cousins had torched the Wildcats for 331 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-43 passing.
Originally, it appered that Sims had the key first-down completion to keep Michigan State in the game with a little greater than a minute remaining, but Carpenter would not give up, grappling for the ball up high, until it came loose at long last.
"From where I saw it, I thought he did catch the ball," Carpenter said. "I just kept punching, kept punching, trying to get it out. Either way, incomplete pass, fumble, the Cats win, so I'm not concerned about it."
Finally, the Cats pulled out that dramatic win in the clutch that they had been seeking for so long. Nwabuisi said afterwards that as soon as he saw the ball hit the turf, he was flooded by a certain feeling of relief.
"It was great in so many ways," Nwabuisi said. "Just from what happened last week to in our career everyone on the team hasn't beaten Michigan State, it was great in a lot of ways."
Carpenter finished Saturday's game with nine tackles, two pass breakups and an interception. He wasn't the only member of the Northwestern secondary to flourish under the spotlight.
Earlier in the game, Carpenter's partner-in-crime, sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell, joined in on the fun with a forced fumble of Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge.
"The play they made on Aaron Burbridge was a great play on their part," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "He made a great catch in traffic but their guy stripped it out, and it was a great play."
Nwabuisi, though not technically a member of the secondary, also benefitted from Campbell's hard work on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Campbell's hard hit on Maxwell forced a wobbler that fell right into Nwabuisi's arms.
"Ibraheim hit the quarterback, and the ball came out wobbly," Nwabuisi said. "It just kind of fell into my lap."
Maxwell also acknowledged the importance of Campbell's hit in forcing his interception.
"I was going on the outside to Keith (Mumphrey) and I got hit as I threw it," Maxwell said. "The ball kind of fluttered and sputtered up into the middle of the field, which isn't where you wanted the ball. That was not where I was intending to throw it."
The senior linebacker took care of the rest, winding his way 43 yards to the end zone. It was the first touchdown of his Northwestern career — in his third-to-last game with the Wildcats.
"I started seeing big offensive linemen coming my way and I just happened to weave through," Nwabuisi said. "I've always thought I was going to get me one. It's a good feeling to finally have it."
For all of the work Campbell and Carpenter have done in Northwestern's defensive backfield, however, perhaps no player has been more important to the Wildcats' success than Bears safety Charles Tillman. Fitzgerald said that as the season goes on, players sometimes start to tune him out. So, during the Wildcats' bye week, he popped in a video of Tillman for his cornerbacks and safeties to study. Tillman, undoubtedly, caught their eyes.
"I think everybody in the country on defense has kind of been invigorated by Peanut Tillman," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Especially midway through the season as a coach, you kind of become like Charlie Brown's teacher. The guys are not hearing what you're saying. They're tired of you. They want a break. They want to get away from you. And then when you see something like that happen, like he did a couple of weeks ago, it really reinforces our belief that you got to go for the ball to win."
The Wildcats forced just nine turnovers in their first six games of the season, including just one apiece in four consecutive games during the middle of the season. Now, they have 12 turnovers in their last five games, highlighted by a season-high four turnovers on Saturday. It's clear that Northwestern's uber-physical play in the backfield is working wonders, and the secondary's success hasn't been lost on Carpenter.
"It certainly has been rewarded," Campbell said. "We've been working on the strip drills, just trying to create turnovers all year. It's great to finally see it paying dividends toward the end of the year. I just wish it could have paid a little bit more earlier in the season."
Equally noteworthy, it can be said that Northwestern's secondary leaves Spartan Stadium more self-assured than they entered it.
"When we're defending deep balls, to see my fellow defensive backs in the secondary be poised and come through and make plays on the ball," Carpenter said, "it's certainly a confidence boost for me and it is for them too."