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Northwestern plays not to lose, then loses, 30-6, to Michigan State

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Early in the third quarter, Northwestern trailed Michigan State 17-6 and faced a 3rd and 9 at the Spartans’ 43-yard line. The Wildcats had moved the ball against the Spartans’ top-ranked defense in the first half and – were it not for Benny Fowler’s circus touchdown catch in the second quarter – would have been trailing Michigan State by just four points.

The Wildcats were driving, their offense having already completed four passes on the drive. They had stood up to the Spartans’ big, bad defense, shown they were capable of matching them blow-for-blow at the line of scrimmage, of sustaining drives and doing some of the things Nebraska did last week when it scored 28 points against Michigan State. "When we took what they gave us, I thought we moved the ball well," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

If you’ve watched the Wildcats play over the past few weeks, you can probably guess what happened next. With the less-mobile Trevor Siemian under center (Kain Colter left the game in the first quarter after sustaining a helmet-to-helmet hit), the Wildcats dialed up an option run. Siemian dashed left and pitched to…Mike Trumpy.

In a vacuum, calling this play doesn't make much sense. Given the situation – the down and distance, the score, the fact Northwestern was (at the time) 4-6 and playing for nothing more than pride and a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, that Michigan State’s defense is so dominant, it’s unlikely the Wildcats would get many good scoring chances the rest of the game – it was utterly nonsensical.

Trumpy isn’t fast or elusive or anything close to the type of back you want trying to turn the corner and gain nine yards against one of the most athletic defenses in the country. Trumpy is not Venric Mark or Stephen Buckley. He is a power back who does his best work between the tackles.

Why, then, did Northwestern decide to pitch him the ball in that situation?

Coach Pat Fitzgerald defended the decision to run Trumpy on speed option by saying the Wildcats "were 2-for-2 on that" in prior attempts and that, given the defensive formation Michigan State was lined up in, he felt confident that play could gain the nine yards required for a first down.

Predictably, Trumpy failed to pick up the first down. In fact, he was brought down for a three-yard loss. The Wildcats punted one play later, and Michigan State put together an impressive eight-play, 87-yard drive to go up 23-6 and effectively seal the game. The Spartans would go on to win, 30-6.

The Trumpy play was symptomatic of Northwestern’s conservative play calling approach Saturday, a consistent trend throughout its losing streak. This might seem like a tired storyline, but the point bears repeating: Northwestern can’t play like it’s trying not to lose. It needs to play to win.

Two other glaring instances of conservative play calling came in the second quarter. The first was a 4th and 6 at the Michigan State 37-yard-line. Down 7-0, Northwestern opted to punt because, according to Fitzgerald, assistants didn't feel confident that the offense -- who one play earlier, "had just got hit" -- could adequately block Michigan State's defensive formation. "We decided to play defense there," Fitzgerald said. "It's more of a team decision."

Then, On their final drive of the half, the Wildcats, now down two scores, settled for a field goal on a 4th and 3 (Northwestern also kicked a field goal in the first quarter three plays after lining up on a 1st and goal at the MSU 7).

“I know every fan wants me to go for it every fourth down. I got it. Check the box. Gotcha, OK?" Fitzgerald said. "I get the criticism and I respect it. When we go for it and get it, it's great. When we go for it and don't get it, sometimes we put ourselves in a tough situation.”

Maybe the goal was to help kicker Jeff Budzien capture Northwestern’s career scoring record. If it was, well, congratulations!

If this was about winning, Northwestern failed. And it only has itself to blame.

Michigan State is a better team than Northwestern, better on offense, defense and special teams. The Wildcats were not expected to win this game, nor should they have been. Northwestern is decimated by injuries and ostensibly afflicted with more bad luck and negative karma than any team in the country. Their offense, in its current state, lacks playmakers. Their defense is serviceable but prone to breakdowns; see Michigan State’s third-quarter touchdown drive.

None of that excuses the timid play calling approach Northwestern used here Saturday. Maybe it wouldn’t have won this game even if it did open up the playbook and attack Michigan State’s defense. Maybe the Trumpy option blunder wouldn’t have mattered one bit. Maybe the Spartans are just that good.

We’ll never know, because the Wildcats didn’t even give themselves a chance.