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Playing an unfamiliar role, Northwestern’s deficiencies exposed in ugly loss

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The Wildcats looked uncomfortable as favorites Saturday night.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

EAST LANSING, Michigan — Northwestern can only be an underdog for so long.

To take the next step as a program, it has to win when it’s the favorite. And not just a favorite, but a two-touchdown, top-10 favorite against a team that hardly looked alive in its prior two contests.

The juice NU brought through the first five weeks of the season was nowhere to be found Saturday at Spartan Stadium, as the Wildcats climbed out of an early 17-0 hole but never fully put things together and fell 29-20 to Michigan State, dashing any hopes of making the College Football Playoff.

For the better part of the last few years, and even beyond, the Wildcats have thrived off of being disrespected, overlooked and slept on. The team’s official pregame video was about being slept on by the critics. Except that in East Lansing, it was the ‘Cats who never fully woke up.

“We didn’t come up here and play clean football,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Sure, this game had trap game qualities, but Northwestern matched up well with Michigan State. The Spartans’ Big Ten-worst scoring offense against the Wildcats’ second-in-the-conference scoring defense. A functioning, if not efficient, NU offense against a team that had given up 73 points combined in its prior two games.

NU has had to earn every ounce of respect from its critics, this season in particular, and finally got it last week with a No. 8 spot in first release of the College Football Playoff rankings.

The avoidable loss is Northwestern’s first as an AP-ranked favorite since 2001. In Fitz’s tenure as head coach, NU has played 27 games as a ranked team but has been favored in just 13 of them. Prior to Saturday’s loss, NU had never lost as a two-touchdown favorite, but it had been such in only three Big Ten contests. The stakes had not been this high.

Even as Northwestern fought back to take an eventual lead, it didn’t ever feel like it imposed its will on the Spartans. Offensively, the line couldn’t get any push, they couldn’t turn threes into sevens, Ramsey wasn’t accurate, and when he was accurate, his receivers dropped catchable balls. Defensively, they settled down after that poor first quarter and played solid, but forced just one turnover against a team that had given it away 14 times in four games.

NU’s inability to run the ball and take advantage of turnovers finally caught up to it. After turning five takeaways into just seven points against Wisconsin, the ‘Cats had a prime chance to put things away early in the fourth quarter. NU scored 20 unanswered points to take a three-point lead before senior linebacker Paddy Fisher intercepted MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi on the next drive, setting up NU in plus territory. Mike Bajakian’s unit scored touchdowns on two of its three third-quarter drives, and it looked like it was ready to put more points on the board.

But for as encouraging as it was that Northwestern hadn’t put together a complete game in its five wins, it was that same inability that doomed it in East Lansing. Kyric McGowan fumbled a handoff on the next play, giving the ball right back to Michigan State. The Wildcats turned the ball over twice in three drives and did not pick up a first down in the final frame.

“We get the big interception from Paddy, and on the sideline, [the] guys were pretty confident,” said Fitz. “We tried to make a play right after, and unfortunately that was one of the self-inflicted wounds. You can’t win like that. It’s like last week, we win the turnover battle resoundingly and it’s a different game. This week it was the other way around.”

It’s hard to be a top-10 team if you lose in the trenches, which is what happened to the Wildcats. After two outstanding weeks against Purdue and Wisconsin, NU’s defensive line hardly touched Lombardi, never sacking him and recording just three quarterback hits. On the other hand, Ramsey was running for his life while running backs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser averaged 3.6 yards per carry with a long run of only eight yards. The signal caller was sacked four times and hit six times.

“It makes it a lot easier on those guys [the MSU defensive line] when they know it’s gonna be a pass, and they don’t have to go through different reads and different responsibilities,” said Ramsey. “It comes full circle. You got to play better from start to finish and don’t give defenses those kinds of opportunities to get after you.”

The fact that this game had such the implications that made the loss so stinging is a testament to the steps currently being taken by the program. To have a game that matters like this did is important. But after a monumental win last week, a bad loss reminds the program that it might be good at playing the dark horse, but it needs to become better at performing as top dog.