Northwestern (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) delivered another stellar offensive performance and took down Michigan State (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten), 54-40. It was the Wildcats’ second-consecutive road upset, in a wildly entertaining up-and-down battle.
After trailing 14-0 early, Northwestern scored 26 unanswered points against Michigan State and held on to beat the Spartans.
Clayton Thorson finished with 281 yards on 27 of 35 passing, three touchdowns and a pick. Justin Jackson turned in 5.5 yards per carry, amassing a career-high 188 yards and two scores on 34 carries. Austin Carr continued his run as the Big Ten’s best wideout and even a top-10 (statistically) wide receiver nationwide. He caught 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. As a team, Northwestern outgained Michigan State, 492-475 and converted 10 of their 19 third downs.
Mark Dantonio sent out redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke under center over former starter Tyler O’Connor and dual-threat Damion Terry. Lewerke, the 16th-ranked pro-style quarterback coming out of high school (per 247Sports) completed his first pass, a 33-yarder over the head of Godwin Igwebuike to R.J. Shelton before Northwestern forced a Michigan State punt. The Wildcats’ offense followed that with a quick three-and-out.
On the next drive, Lewerke burned Northwestern’s defense for a 24-yard sideline scamper and a 15-yard dime of a touchdown to Josiah Price, giving the Spartans a 7-0 lead.
Northwestern got the ball back and faced a 3rd & 1 from their own 44-yard line before Garrett Dickerson committed a false start, setting the Wildcats back five yards. On the next play, Thorson threw a weak pass intended for Dickerson that was intercepted by Michigan State’s Justin Layne and returned 43 yards for a touchdown.
Up 14-0, Michigan State had every ounce of momentum in front of a homecoming crowd at Spartan Stadium. With their redshirt freshman quarterback rolling and their defense suffocating Northwestern, it looked like the game could get out of hand. But Northwestern responded.
After the two teams exchanged punts, Northwestern got the ball back with 6:15 left in the first quarter. Thorson engineered an efficient eight-play, 61-yard drive resulting in a 29-yard Jackson touchdown run to the left side. Jackson found his hole and then juked out cornerback Vayante Copeland for the touchdown.
Leading 14-7, Lewerke then put together a 52-yard drive capped off by a 41-yard Michael Geiger field goal, giving Michigan State a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.
After the field goal, Northwestern’s offense continued to click. Thorson completed five passes in the ensuing drive, the final of which was a nine-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to Austin Carr, who scored his seventh touchdown of the season (he’s now scored in each of his last five games). (Oh, and Flynn Nagel took a dive into the trainer’s table after a sweet tiptoe catch.)
On the ensuing Michigan State drive, Joe Gaziano recorded his first career sack for a safety. The Spartans faced 3rd & 8 from their own seven yard-line, and Lewerke was pancaked by Gaziano for the safety. 17-16, Michigan State.
But the Northwestern offense could not be stopped. Jackson ran for 33 yards on the next drive to set up a 33-yard Jack Mitchell field goal, giving Northwestern their first lead, 19-17, and continuing a 19-3 scoring run for the Wildcats. By that point, Jackson had racked up 94 yards on the ground, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
On Michigan State’s next drive, Northwestern kept Lewerke in check. After his red-hot start, the redshirt freshman did quiet down, and Northwestern kept him contained on QB scrambles, leading to a three-and-out for the Spartans.
The teams then traded punts and went into halftime with the Wildcats on top, 19-17. Northwestern dominated the second quarter, outscoring the Spartans 12-3 and out-gaining them, 106-3.
The Wildcats started the second half on absolute fire, carrying over the first half momentum. After converting with Andrew Scanlan for Northwestern’s sixth third-down conversion, Thorson took advantage of a completely blown coverage from the Spartans and hit Nagel for a 57-yard score down the left sideline. The touchdown put Northwestern on top, 26-17, making it a 26-3 run following the 14-0 first-quarter deficit.
On the next drive, Northwestern put together an absolute beauty, averaging 8.6 yards per play on a 10-play, 86-yard drive that lasted 3:28, resulting in a nine-yard Thorson touchdown run. The run was a stellar option read by Thorson, and seven of the 10 plays on the drive went for seven-plus yards, putting Northwestern up 33-17.
Then insanity ensued.
Tyler O’Connor entered the game, replacing Lewerke who finished 12 of 19 with 99 yards passing. On his first drive, O’Connor completed a very fortunate 59-yard pass to R.J. Shelton, who caught it in a miraculous tip play off the hands of Igwebuike. Make it 33-24 Northwestern.
A Northwestern three-and-out was quickly followed by the beginnings of an efficient Michigan State drive, before Ifeadi Odenigbo sacked O’Connor and stripped the ball, which was quickly recovered by Gaziano.
After a Northwestern punt, more madness. O’Connor found Shelton deep again, this time an 86-yard touchdown at the mercy of Alonzo Mayo’s blown coverage, bringing the score to 33-31 Northwestern.
On the following kickoff, Solomon Vault took a bouncing kick 95 yards back for his fourth career kick return touchdown. It was a hugely important play, as the NU offense had stalled for a few drives (not really stalling, more like just not scoring every drive).
Northwestern led 40-31 after two touchdowns in 15 seconds.
Things quickly settled down, and Jared McGee picked off O’Connor on a deep ball with 14:43 left in the game and Northwestern up nine.
Over the next 6:18, Thorson led another impressively efficient drive—13 plays, 91 yards—topped off by a 26-yard scamper into the end zone by Jackson. After that, Northwestern led 47-31.
Then, Michigan State scored again. O’Connor found Donnie Corley for a nine-yard score with 7:10 left, making it a 47-37 ballgame. But Northwestern wasn’t done, putting a final dagger with a beauty from Thorson to Carr on fourth down—54-37. It was the most points the Wildcats have scored since October 29, 2011 versus Indiana.
Michigan State blocked a Hunter Niswander punt and Geiger converted on a 33-yard field goal to make it 54-40.
- Northwestern continues to thrive in the face of adversity. Our Zach Pereles noted last week Northwestern’s ability to come back from adversity in Iowa City. Today was more of the same. Trailing 14-0, Northwestern looked completely overmatched—could this be another 38-0 loss in the state of Michigan? Thorson settled in and played a really efficient game after a brutal interception. Jackson made elusive plays on the ground all day. Even when Michigan State struck with two long touchdowns, Northwestern consistently responded.
- The defense was very up-and-down. Lewerke looked really good with his legs in the early parts of the game. After Tommy Armstrong burned Northwestern for 132 rushing yards, the Wildcats’ struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks were continuing, as Lewerke was running all over the field. But eventually, the front seven settled in nicely and kept Lewerke contained—both on the ground and through the air. They got effective pressure on Lewerke later on, highlighted by Gaziano’s second-quarter safety. However, O’Connor was much more effective, and he threw three touchdowns on a Northwestern secondary that looked confused at times. Nice job by the front seven, who gave up 66 rush yards, but not so much for the secondary, who allowed 281 yards to a quarterback (O’Connor) who came in midway through the third quarter. But overall, giving up 40 points is a bad look for the defense.
- Northwestern continues to struggle tackling in the open field. Especially in the first half, Michigan State’s playmakers were consistently breaking tackles. This slowed down later in the game, but something to keep an eye on going forward.
- Thorson continues to improve. Thorson looked much better last week in Iowa City, and the trend continued today. He was comfortable in the pocket all day, delivering mostly accurate throws. After a rough start, including a rough pick-six, Thorson rebounded in a stellar way.
- Northwestern needed Justin Jackson, and he delivered. Jackson made highlight plays throughout the game, furthering his case as this team’s MVP.
- Austin Carr is the best receiver in the Big Ten. No doubt. But Nagel and Andrew Scanlan stepped up in a big way. This receiving corps is better than we thought.
- Northwestern can score. The Wildcats just scored 54 points. Let that sink in. It’s the best offensive putout since 2011 against Indiana, and let’s not forget what this offense possesses: the best receiver in the Big Ten and arguably the conference’s best running back. Today, they won a game that went into the 40’s on the scoreboard. That’s impressive for Northwestern, and the offense looks completely reborn from its early-season struggles. The Wildcats also put together effective and time-consuming drives. They scored five touchdowns on drives of 60-plus yards in Northwestern’s best offensive performance in recent memory
- Northwestern has a chance. At 3-3 overall with a 2-1 Big Ten record, Northwestern is in the thick of things in the Big Ten West. Ohio State and Wisconsin are still on the horizon for the Wildcats, but this is very much a team with a chance in the West division. While Iowa and Michigan State aren’t the teams we thought they’d be at the start of the season, two-consecutive road wins—with complete offensive performances in both—isn’t something to ignore. The team is coming together—the offense was in top-tier form today, the front seven showed improvement once again and the team played with a confidence and edge we haven’t seen much this year. Northwestern is a new team.