On a milestone day for Northwestern’s class of 2023, it was Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcat coaching staff that were taken to school. Michigan State (2-1, 1-0 B1G) demolished NU (1-2, 0-1) 31-10 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the scoreline indicates, and the decision-makers in purple can be held accountable for much of that result.
A number of questionable decisions from a typically solid group put Northwestern in a position that couldn’t be escaped. Offensively, defensively and in all phases of the game, the players just weren’t put in a position to win. NU’s on-field execution was most definitely lacking, but even a near errorless game from those between the lines wouldn’t have overcome the domination that occurred across the two sidelines.
“I’m gonna hold our coaches accountable first,” said Fitzgerald postgame. “It’s not very pretty right now. What you write, we’re deserving of it. What you say, we’re deserving of it.”
The first pivotal moment came as Northwestern trailed by seven in the first quarter. Gifted great field position by a muffed punt, an Isaiah Bowser run brought Northwestern to the one-yard line. In 2018, Mick McCall and Clayton Thorson feasted on the most efficient play in the game, the quarterback sneak. Whether you want to use the eye test, or prefer to look at statistics that show the QB sneak is 20 percent more successful than any other short-yardage play, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the offensive braintrust would return to their bread and butter.
Instead, Northwestern tried to let Bowser reach pay dirt on two attempts, before opting for a baffling speed option look on fourth down that was instantly blown up. It was a puzzling sequence of events, and foreshadowed the day to come for NU.
“We felt like we could capture the edge,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, we didn’t.”
Later in the half, Michigan State drove the ball into plus territory with 45 seconds remaining. On third-and-16, Northwestern’s legendary coach opted to take a timeout. MSU responded by converting on a 21-yard crossing route. Two plays later, Sparty found itself in a similar position. Faced with a third-and-10, Fitzgerald again called timeout, this time using both of his remaining clock stoppages. Cody White responded by utilizing a silky-smooth double move to catch an easy touchdown pass.
Puzzlingly, Fitzgerald implied that the matchup of AJ Hampton, who struggled mightily all game, against White instead of the much more impressive Newsome marking him was what Northwestern wanted out of the timeouts, hinting that they weren’t necessarily used for matchup purposes.
“We were trying to see what they were in formationally, it didn’t work,” Fitzgerald said. He added that he could’ve, “kept the timeouts for halftime lunch [instead].”
Topping off a trio of debatable decisions from Fitz, Hunter Johnson was replaced by Aidan Smith at the end of the ensuing third quarter. Fitzgerald compared the decision to calling a pitcher from the bullpen in an effort to find a spark, but it seemed more like a white flag.
Though Fitz later added that he wanted to get the little-used backup some experience, down 21 in the third quarter is an odd time to make a call to the pen, to say the least. Smith completed four passes and threw two interceptions. He wasn’t able to close the deficit, or provide any semblance of inspiration for ‘Cats fans.
But individual decisions didn’t cost Northwestern this game all on their own. In fact, the overall offensive gameplan was hard to understand.
In Northwestern’s three recent wins against Michigan State, Mick McCall elected to try and avoid challenging the strong spots of Sparty’s vaunted defense. In the 2016-2018 iterations of this contest, the Wildcats threw the ball 1.3 times for every run, including sacks and scrambles, against what has been consistently one of the top rushing defenses in the country.
Yesterday, NU changed it up completely, throwing the ball just .85 times per run, and it backfired. The team averaged 3.2 yards per carry, and if Drake Anderson didn’t break out in the fourth quarter, that number would be significantly worse.
Fitz didn’t say much about the route of play calling that the coaches chose, merely responding to the line of questioning with, “about 15 of those [carries] were opportunities for throws too,” before clarifying that he was talking about RPOs and potential checks at the line by Johnson.
It’s tough to find an occasion where Fitzgerald and co. are outclassed as thoroughly as they were on Saturday, and even more rare to see Mark Dantonio win the coaching battle in this matchup.
But this time, the MSU coach finally got his revenge, and he did so in embarrassing fashion.