EAST LANSING, Mich. — Northwestern came into East Lansing looking for a way to turn around their 2018 season.
It wasn’t easy — it never is — but the Wildcats (2-3, 2-1 B1G) got a momentum-shifting win, defeating No. 20 Michigan State (3-2, 1-1 B1G) for the third straight year, 29-19. Quarterback Clayton Thorson torched Michigan State’s secondary for a third straight year, going 31-of-47 for 373 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. He also tossed beautiful touchdown passes to JJ Jefferson and Cam Green.
NU took a 14-6 lead into halftime, but Michigan State fought back in the third quarter, as Felton Davis III scored twice to give MSU a 19-14 lead. For the first time this season, Northwestern responded with its backs against the wall in the second half. Thorson engineered a beautiful 75-yard drive to retake the lead, culminating in Green’s 21-yard TD catch.
The defense also stepped up in a big way, sans the services of linebacker Nate Hall and cornerback Greg Newsome II. After surrendering two straight touchdowns to begin the second half, NU stood tall, forcing two punts and a turnover on downs to effectively clinch the win. The Wildcats held Michigan State to 4-of-14 on third down conversions and limited MSU’s explosive plays. Late in the game, the defense came up huge on a fourth and one from the MSU 9, stuffing running back Connor Heyward in the backfield.
Not gonna happen: @NUFBFamily stuffs Michigan State on 4th-and-1 deep in Spartans' territory. pic.twitter.com/7iIw43MvKe— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 6, 2018
Michigan State found the first bit of momentum in the game in the form of a Clayton Thorson interception. After a hot 8-of-11 start, Thorson elected to throw under duress on third-and-short, and the ball ended up in the hands of MSU defender Khari Willis. MSU was working with a short field, but the Northwestern defense held firm in the red zone, forcing a field goal.
Thorson then responded to the hiccup in a major way. On the ensuing possession, he connected with Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown — the longest pass of his career. It appeared that MSU blew the coverage, as there was no one near McGowan.
Sometimes, it's the wide-open throws that are the hardest.@Mcgowan_30 was *wide* open, and Clayton Thorson didn't miss him for the long @NUFBFamily TD. pic.twitter.com/QnymOmgAUP— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) October 6, 2018
The Northwestern defense came back out on the next possession and forced a three and out, and giving NU another prime opportunity to score, starting the drive at its own 49 yard line. Sure enough, Thorson capitalized on the field position, dropping a 34-yard pass into the arms of JJ Jefferson. All of a sudden, on the heels of two explosive drives, Northwestern had jumped out to a 14-3 lead.
Triple J's out here getting it done.— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) October 6, 2018
JJ Jefferson makes the pretty catch to add to @NUFBFamily's early lead. pic.twitter.com/8dy0sVp0cp
MSU responded and fought their way to the NU 6-yard-line, but the defense held Sparty to a field goal once more. MSU instantly forced a three-and-out and began to work their way down the field again.
Cameron Ruiz appeared to force a fumble, giving NU a key takeaway, but the play was overturned and ruled as an incompletion. On the next play, Brian Lewerke threw it directly into the numbers of Jared McGee, who got his first interception of the year. NU kneeled the clock out, and led 14-6 at the half.
Northwestern had been there before. This time, they wouldn’t fall to the same fate as recent weeks.
The second half opened with both teams driving down the field and punting, but MSU found the first breakthrough of the second half, using trickery to free wide receiver Felton Davis for a 48 yard touchdown run.
On the ensuing drive, Thorson threw a pass off of the facemask of freshman Drake Anderson and into the hands of Spartans defensive lineman Mike Panasiuk. MSU turned the short field into another touchdown for Felton Davis, this time a 3-yard TD reception. Quickly, it seemed as though Northwestern was on the verge of yet another second half letdown.
The Wildcats responded, however. Thorson led Northwestern down the field with efficiency, capping the drive off with a 21-yard TD pass to Cam Green. The Wildcats converted the following two-point conversion, which gave NU a 22-19 lead. The score represented NU’s the first second half points against a Power Five opponent this year.
On the next drive, one of the more funky plays you’ll see happened. MSU ran an option play, and beyond the line of scrimmage it seemed as though Brian Lewerke pitched the ball to Weston Bridges, who proceeded to pick up a big gain. Upon review, though, it was ruled that the pitch was forward, and thus illegal. Northwestern took advantage of the fortunate ruling and got the ball back.
Thorson took the Wildcats down the field once again, and even picked up a huge fourth and five from the MSU 26. Despite this, the drive ended in a missed 34-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander, leaving MSU down three with 6:40 to go. Northwestern’s defense stood tall, thanks to big plays by JR Pace and Trent Goens. MSU was forced to punt with 4:24 to go in the game and a Riley Lees punt return gave NU the ball inside the Spartan 35.
Northwestern was forced to punt the ball back to MSU, but Collins pinned the ball beautifully on the MSU 2. NU was able to stop MSU on a fourth and one from their own 9, and a Clayton Thorson sneak effectively ended the game, handing NU a huge Big Ten win, 29-19.
The Wildcats needed this win, and they got it.