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Five takeaways from Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State

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A squandered opportunity.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

With Northwestern’s first loss of the season Saturday, ‘Cats fans’ dreams of an undefeated season have been shattered. The Wildcats showed some resiliency after falling behind 17-0 early but ultimately could not win in the fourth quarter. Here are five takeaways from NU’s abhorrent loss to Michigan State.

NU really missed out on a prime opportunity

Just 24 hours ago, Northwestern was going to be favored in its final three regular season games and have a reasonable shot at entering the Big Ten Championship undefeated and a victory away from the College Football Playoff. But the ‘Cats, favored by two touchdowns against a rebuilding Michigan State team, blew a big opportunity.

It was always going to require a miracle to make the Playoff by beating Ohio State, but the status of Ohio State’s health makes this loss all the more difficult to swallow. Every Big Ten team to have experienced a COVID outbreak has missed at least two games this season, and the Buckeyes have already missed two games, one of which was unrelated to their COVID issues. One more cancellation would result in OSU only playing five regular season games and thus being ineligible for the Big Ten Championship.

A one-loss, Big Ten Champion Northwestern would not be enough to make the Playoff. Still as easy as it may be to feel disappointed right now, any NU fan would have been satisfied heading into the season knowing the prospects left this season for NU. The West is still very much within reach, and a victory over Indiana (which seems the most likely East representative) in the Big Ten Championship would likely send the Wildcats to a New Year’s Six bowl.

The run game needs work

If NU plans to get back on track, especially on offense, it will need massive improvements from the run game. Over the last three games, Northwestern has rushed for a paltry 1.6 yards per carry. If everything else is clicking, that might be enough. Otherwise, that lack of efficiency won’t get it done. The offensive line has struggled to create holes for the running backs, but the backs themselves haven’t created much.

Isaiah Bowser ran the ball 9 times for 28 yards yesterday after only receiving two carries last week and got stood up on an early fourth-and-short. Drake Anderson averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry, but the consistency wasn’t there. True freshman Cam Porter scored his first touchdown but that was his only carry, while Evan Hull didn’t see any offensive snaps. There are no obvious answers.

The defense didn’t play great but still gave NU a chance to win

Mike Hankwitz’s united played far from a perfect game and generated only one turnover against an offense that had previously turned the ball over 14 times in four games. After a putrid first quarter plus first play of the second quarter in which it allowed 169 yards and 17 points, the unit settled down. The secondary limited MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi to 11-of-27 and 169 total yards, just 57 of which came in the second half.

Both of MSU’s fourth quarter field goals resulted from drives that started at the Spartan 47- and 50-yard lines, respectively. The quarterback draw, especially on third down, continued to give the ‘Cats fits and sealed the game for Michigan State, but if yesterday’s defensive performance turns out as the worst defensive worst game in the 2020 season, it is hard to be too upset.

NU’s inability to execute against inferior teams finally caught up to them

Against Nebraska, Northwestern failed to ever truly step on the UNL’s throat when having plenty of opportunities to do so. It escaped with a one-possession win. Against Iowa, NU dug itself an early 17-0 hole and still found a way to win behind a stellar second half defensive performance. And against Michigan State, a combination of individual miscues (Jalen Nailor’s first touchdown against Cam Ruiz, Kyric McGowan’s fumbled handoff and a combination of woes on fourth down) ultimately hamstrung the Wildcats.

NU’s style of play and general lack of game-breaking ability gives the ‘Cats a smaller margin of error. Typically, they compensate for that by avoiding individual breakdowns and executing in opportunistic scenarios. On Saturday, they didn’t.

Northwestern has a murky path to finish the season

Context is key here. If you are playing with house money and satisfied by the prospect of a likely Big Ten Championship appearance, then any finish to this season is satisfying. In the near term, it would reason that a Minnesota program with 40 COVID cases will not be ready to play next weekend. Then there’s the HAT.

For those still pining for a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl, NU very likely needs to win out, which would mean taking the Big Ten title. It’s unclear who will win the East division, but with Ohio State likely to go to a very good bowl even if it doesn’t make the Playoff, a loss in the Big Ten Championship would result in a lower-tier bowl berth for the Wildcats.