EVANSTON — This was not the conference opener that Pat Fitzgerald and his team had in mind.
Michigan State (2-1, 1-0 B1G) took control of the game early and didn’t look back as they rolled over Northwestern (1-2, 0-1) to a 31-10 victory in each team’s first Big Ten game of the year. It was nothing short of a nightmare performance for the Wildcats, coming out completely flat in both halves and finishing lifelessly after Hunter Johnson was benched in the third quarter.
The Spartan offense set the tone early with a dominant 9 play, 75-yard drive to open the game. Brian Lewerke got into a groove early as he completed three of his first four passes before Elijah Collins punched it in from five yards out.
After an early three-and-out for Hunter Johnson and the Wildcat offense, NU got a break as Michigan State coughed up the ball on the ensuing punt. The Wildcats couldn’t take advantage, however, as the Spartan defense stuffed them in the redzone. After Isaiah Bowser was ruled down just short on the one-yard line, Michigan State stopped the ‘Cats at the goaline on three straight plays including a baffling speed option call on fourth-and-goal.
The Wildcats finally got on the board early in the second quarter as Charlie Kuhbander squeaked in a 39-yard field goal despite a crazy wind blowing toward the south end one of Ryan Field. The kick barely got through, but it was an impressive piece of work from the junior. Check out how this ball moved from right to left in the air:
The majority of the second quarter was rather uneventful from that point on as both defenses took over. Northwestern and Michigan State traded three-and-outs with drives stalling left and right throughout the remainder of the quarter. Hunter Johnson and the NU offense crossed midfield on their final drive of the half, but a holding call on Gunnar Vogel halted a drive that ended with an ill-advised HJ interception on 3rd-and-20.
That interception would prove to be costly. The Spartans quickly drove into Northwestern territory with the half winding down, and MSU capitalized (after a landmark sack from Joe Gaziano) as Lewerke connected with Cody White from 11 yards out to give the Spartans a 14-3 lead heading into the break.
After the Wildcats went three-and-out on the first drive of the second half, Michigan State had a chance to stretch its lead and potentially put the game out of reach. They came out empty-handed, though, as Matt Coghlin pushed a 40-yarder wide right. That miss marked the kicker’s fourth straight in the past two games, but the Northwestern offense stuck to its theme of the day by going three-and-out on the ensuing drive.
Coghlin’s miss would prove to be meaningless, though. as Lewerke carved the Northwestern defense with ease and connected with Matt Seybert from eight yards out for his second passing touchdown of the day. A disastrous start to the second half saw the Wildcats trailing 24-3 heading into the final 15 minutes of play, and allowing another score virtually immediately. NU gained just 19 total yards in the 3rd and failed to get a first down throughout the entirety of the quarter.
Lewerke put together a strong showing, as he finally got a win against the Wildcats on his fourth try in four years. The senior finished 18-for-31 with 228 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior Aidan Smith took over for the NU offense in the fourth quarter after Johnson was benched. Smith threw two ugly interceptions in the quarter before leading the Wildcats down the field for a late garbage time touchdown from Drake Anderson.
Northwestern takes on a Wisconsin team in Camp Randall next weekend that demolished No. 11 Michigan behind a 28-0 first half. That should be fun!