The weekly stock report from NU’s 29-19 win in East Lansing:
1. Clayton Thorson
It took a few games, but Clayton Thorson finally looks like Clayton Thorson again. The senior quarterback had a career game, totaling 373 passing yards with the added pressure of an inefficient run game. No. 18 just owns Michigan State.
Thorson’s receivers made his solid play look even better, with impressive catches by JJ Jefferson and superback Cam Green for touchdowns. Thorson hit seven different receivers for completions, including 10 passes for 111 yards to Flynn Nagel. Post-surgery Thorson is not just cool, calm and collected, but bold. A 77-yard completion to Kyric McGowan not only scored a touchdown, but gave Thorson a career-long completion. Oh, and he scored the touchdown to ice the game late in the fourth, sneaking in from two yards out. Thorson made the offense fun to watch for the first time in a while.
2. The fourth quarter defense
Despite a mini-comeback by MSU (and as all Northwestern fans know, second half deficits are no joke, no matter how small) the defense shut the Spartans down when it mattered. After an incredible 2017-2018 season, the run-defense came out a little slow this September. Now, the front seven and defensive backs look like one cohesive, consistent and successful group. The d-line was highlighted by big pressures in the final minutes and sacks by Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano. Chris Bergin stepped up filling for Nate Hall, giving the defense quality snaps throughout. Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher made for an unsurprisingly successful duo to help the front seven execute big stops.
Montre Hartage missed a few drives because of an injury, but when he was on the field, he was a force to be reckoned with. His three pass break-ups came with major implications, and he keyed Northwestern’s fourth down stop at the Michigan State 11 yard line with just under four minutes to play. JR Pace completed the defensive back duo, totaling eight tackles and two break-ups. Pace and Hartage combined for an almost entirely rock-solid fourth quarter. The defense got it done against a worthy opponent and gave Northwestern some much-needed confidence heading into the rest of the season.
3. Jake Collins
It seems weird to include the punter in a game with so many highlights, but Collins’s performance couldn’t be ignored. It’s unconventional, but special teams deserves the highlight this game. Time and again, Collins pinned the Spartans in difficulty territory, flipping the field and putting MSU in the shadow of their own goalposts. Collins’s best moment was when he pinned the Spartans at their own 2-yard-line late in the fourth quarter. The grad’s longest punt was a whopping 56-yarder, but his consistency was most impressive. Collins averaged 43.8 yards on six punts and kept the momentum on Northwestern’s side. Even when turnovers occurred, and bad drives didn’t pan out, Collins and the special teams crew (Cam Ruiz had a great play on a punt) was there to minimize the damage and start the process of getting the ball back.
Honorable mentions: Clayton Thorson’s health (and confidence), scoring points in the second half, Blake Gallagher, Chris Bergin, Kyric McGowan, JJ Jefferson, Cam Green, Flynn Nagel
1. The running game
With the recent loss of Jeremy Larkin, it’s hard to be harsh on this group. But today was rough. Drake Anderson, Solomon Vault and Clayton Thorson combined for a net total eight rushing yards — two of which came on Thorson’s touchdown rush. The entire running game the other 58 minutes accounted for just six yards. Also, Anderson missed the ball, causing it to bounce off his face mask in to the arms of a happy MSU defender who happened to be in the right place in the right time to pick up an interception. Anderson is young, and if his father is any indication, he’ll only continue to improve. But today was not the running backs’ day, and they’re lucky Thorson had so much success in the passing game to make up for it. Hopefully with a little more time to adjust, the running backs will fill the gaping hole left by Larkin’s departure.
2. Anyone who tried to guard Felton Davis III
Davis was an absolute powerhouse. With 96 yards on seven receptions, Davis seemed unstoppable. He was at the center of almost every major offensive play for the Spartans, including two key touchdowns early in the second half. The first — a monstrous 48-yard run — shortened the lead to a very threatening two points, which Wildcat fans know by now is far too close for comfort. His second trip to the end zone was a three-yard reception that put MSU ahead for the first and only time of the game. I just raved about Northwestern’s defense, but this guy was the one person who kept the D in check — even when Roderick Campbell pulled his hair.
3. Third down offense
It was a strong showing, but if there has to be a third down, it’s got to be Northwestern’s third down efficiency. The ‘Cats were a mere 5-14 on third down attempts, including 1-of-7 on third and longs and 3-of-5 on third and shorts. Northwestern’s 35.7 percent efficiency was not much better than Michigan State’s 26.7, but Thorson and his receivers were good the rest of the game, it’s almost unfair to critique.
Honorable mentions: Riley Lees, Winning easy, Drake Anderson’s face mask