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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern flounders in 38-21 defeat to Michigan State

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The Gothic uniforms did not culminate in revenge.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Illinois — Michigan State may just be Pat Fitzgerald’s kryptonite.

For the third consecutive season, Northwestern (0-1, 0-1 B1G) fell to Michigan State (1-0, 1-0 B1G) 38-21 in a sloppy game chocked full of miscues and missed opportunities for the Wildcats.

Hunter Johnson threw for 283 yards on 30-of-43 passing with three passing touchdowns and zero interceptions. Bryce Kirtz finished with seven receptions for 80 yards while Stephon Robinson Jr hauled in five receptions for 79 yards and one touchdown. On the ground, the ‘Cats went with a split backfield, with Evan Hull rushing for 87 yards on nine carries and Anthony Tyus III carrying the ball eight times for 13 yards.

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil struggled in his debut, as the defense consistently missed tackles and generated just one turnover in garbage time. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III channeled his inner Trey Sermon, finishing with 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Brandon Joseph led the way for the Wildcats with 8 tackles, but was unsuccessful in generating the game-changing play that NU fans have grown accustomed to seeing from him.

MSU opened the scoring with a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of scrimmage via a left edge rushing touchdown from Kenneth Walker III, silencing the Northwestern home crowd just 13 seconds into the contest. Hunter Johnson quickly responded on the ensuing possession with a perfect 41-yard bomb to Bryce Kirtz on 3rd and 14, however, the ‘Cats came up empty on the drive due to a missed 44-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander.

The Spartans wasted no time pouring it on early, following up NU’s missed scoring chance with an impressive 10-play, 74-yard drive capped off by Walker III’s second rushing touchdown in as many possessions to secure a 14-0 lead just over seven minutes into the first quarter. Johnson countered Michigan State’s touchdown with another beautiful deep ball on third and long, this one for 47 yards to Stephon Robinson Jr., but two incompletions on both third and fourth down from the opposition’s 22-yard line ended the drive, marking another missed opportunity early for Northwestern’s offense.

Each team went scoreless through the next 12 minutes of play, with the Wildcats failing to score points behind a sputtering offense. Two fumbles, both of which were recovered by Nothwestern, occurred on critical plays within the respective drives that led the ‘Cats to punt the ball back to MSU. Michigan State then conducted a four play, 66-yard drive that ended with Payton Thorne’s first passing touchdown of the day, further extending the Spartan lead to 21 points.

Finally, with just under one minute remaining in the first half, Trey Pugh registered Northwestern’s first touchdown of the season on 4th and goal from the MSU one yard-line to cap off a 15-play, 62-yard series lasting nearly seven minutes. After a nightmare first half, the Wildcats trailed by just two possessions at halftime, with the Spartans posting 279 total yards in the first 30 minutes of action.

In a brief attempt to spark a rushing attack that averaged just 1.8 yards an attempt in the first half, Evan Hull burst through the Michigan State defense on the first play of the second half for a 49-yard gain. However, Northwestern’s offense once again stalled in the red zone and Charlie Kuhbander missed a 28-yard field goal, keeping the scoring at 21-7.

On the following possession, Michigan State marched down the field with ease, as Walker beat Michigan native Chris Bergin to the edge, entering the end zone for the third time on his star-studded night. The rush gave the Spartans a 21-point cushion halfway into the third quarter, all but plunging the metaphorical dagger into Northwestern’s aching hearts.

The Wildcats weren’t done fighting just yet, however. To open the fourth quarter, Mike Bajakian’s offense converted on two separate fourth downs to set up another Johnson-to-Pugh passing touchdown, closing the gap to two scores. The drive went 16 plays for 69 yards in just under eight minutes, with Johnson going completing all 11 of his passes for 59 yards.

And yet, Northwestern’s defense just couldn’t muster a stop. The Spartans once again waltzed down the field via big runs from Walker, eventually settling for a field goal to make the score 31-14 with 6:04 remaining in the game. At that point, the game was effectively out of reach. While the ‘Cats were able to recover a fumble late and turn it into six points, MSU answered right back with another Walker-led drive, as the 17-point deficit could not be overcome.

The Wildcats return to Ryan Field next Saturday to face Indiana State at 11 a.m. CT on Big Ten Network.