Despite trailing 38-16 in the all-time series between the schools, Northwestern football has enjoyed an impressive three-year run against Michigan State.
The Wildcats, led each time by quarterback Clayton Thorson, have dominated Mark Dantonio and Brian Lewerke’s Spartans. Rarely has offense been lacking for NU in these matchups — something we can’t always say — as it has averaged nearly 41 points per contest, but each phase has had plenty of standouts.
In preparation for Saturday’s matchup with MSU, we decided to go into the vault of Northwestern football highlights and rank the top five plays from the ‘Cats’ current three-game winning streak.
5. Clayton Thorson’s touchdown pass to JJ Jefferson (2018)
All three of No. 18’s scores in last season’s win were pretty, but this one featured the best throw and an impressive catch to go with it. Up 7-3, Michigan State’s coverage broke down, allowing Jefferson to find the end zone even with a bum hand. Thorson put the ball in a perfect place, creating a gorgeous pitch and catch that helped begin the 2018 season turnaround.
4. Justin Jackson’s touchdown pass to Bennett Skowronek (2017)
The MSU run defense limited JJTBC to just 41 yards on 17 carries in this slugfest, but Jackson made his biggest play of the day with his arm rather than his legs. Tied at 10 early in the fourth quarter, he took a handoff from Thorson, ran to his right and lobbed a pass to an open Bennett Skowronek. It was Jackson’s only passing attempt in his Northwestern career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
3. Joe Gaziano’s breathtaking sack (2016)
This play wasn’t as high-leverage as some of the others in this countdown, but it is certainly just as memorable. The then-redshirt freshman began a personal three game sack streak against Lewerke and MSU with this bone-crunching hit off of a three-man rush early in the second quarter, delivering his team two points and taking all of the energy from the crowd.
2. Nate Hall’s game-sealing interception (2017)
Earlier in the game, Hall was in the locker room having roughly 30 stitches administered to two fingers he had split open. But the junior linebacker was back on the field for three wild overtimes, and it was on a broken play started by a Joe Gaziano strip that he picked off Lewerke’s ill-advised throw to seal the upset over the 16th-ranked Spartans.
1. Solomon Vault’s 95-yard kickoff return touchdown (2016)
There are bound to be several highlights from a game in which NU hangs 54 (!), but Vault’s kickoff return tops them all. Northwestern’s 16-point lead had been cut to just two, and the Wildcats needed a response after two explosive touchdowns from MSU.
On the ensuing kickoff, the junior let the ball bounce at the five before picking it up. Using his blazing speed and a couple of nice blocks from his teammates, Vault hit the hole and accelerated all the way to the house to give NU some much-needed breathing room. It was his fourth career return touchdown.
Honorable Mentions: Flynn Nagel’s triple-overtime touchdown catch and run (preceding Hall’s pick), 2017; Cam Green’s (eventually game-winning) touchdown on another gorgeous throw from Thorson, 2018; Justin Jackson’s juke and subsequent 28-yard score, 2016; Justin Jackson’s game-sealing 26-yard touchdown, 2016.
Disagree with our rankings? Any plays you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below!