In the end, the Spartans offense had to respond too many times. Clayton Thorson threw for 356 yards, and Nate Hall intercepted a Brian Lewerke pass to seal a 39-31 win for Northwestern over Michigan State in triple overtime Saturday at Ryan Field.
Regulation Follows Familiar Formula
The Spartans got off to a hot start in chilly Evanston Saturday, with Lewerke and the offense marching 92 yards on the opening drive. Last week’s hero Cody White caught a 60-yard bomb and punctuated the drive with a nice 6-yard TD catch. Lewerke improvised in the face of pressure, and floated the ball to White. White had broken to the pylon after his initial route was well-covered.
After Andrew Dowell forced a Northwestern fumble, the Spartans were marching to go up two scores early when White fumbled in the red zone. A field-position battle ensued that ended with the Spartans kicking a field goal early in the 2nd quarter to go up 10-0. Northwestern responded with a 13-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a Thornson touchdown sneak on 4th and goal. The Wildcats added a field goal to tie the game before half.
Coming into the game, many predicted that Northwestern’s commitment to stop the run would force the Spartans’ hand. That turned out to be even truer than we expected, as Spartan running backs averaged only 2.0 yards per carry. Their very last running play of the game came with 13:43 remaining in regulation. The defense bent but only broke one time, when Northwestern threw a halfback pass for a touchdown early in the fourth.
Amazingly, freshman kicker Matt Coghlin managed to miss two kicks off the right upright during the game. Because of these miscues, the Spartans faced a seven-point deficit with 3:14 left and the ball on their own 12. Lewerke was in the shotgun on every play as he marched the team down the field. He completed passes to five different receivers and picked up a fourth down with his legs. Felton Davis III made an acrobatic, bobbling catch in the end zone with 25 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.
The Spartans’ defense looked gassed in the overtime periods. The decision to stay in a base 4-3 defense will be questioned. Outside linebackers Dowell and Chris Frey were routinely abused by quicker tight ends. Thorson and the Wildcats were completely comfortable. The Spartans quickly responded with two touchdown passes, one to Davis III and one to White to take a 31-24 lead. It had the makings of a classic, with Lewerke and Thorson trading blows.
The aerial assault continued, with Northwestern working the seams for two more touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Freshman standout Josiah Scott got beat on a 3rd-and-7 in the third overtime. He then missed a sure tackle on what was eventually a touchdown. He is supremely talented, but mistakes like these will hopefully serve as a reminder to not get too high emotionally.
The End, and What It Means
On second down in the third overtime, Lewerke lost the ball but managed to it up and stay on his feet. Rather than throwing it away and having two more downs, Lewerke made a fairly uncharacteristic mistake. He rolled left, failed to properly set his feet, and flung the ball to the end zone, where it was intercepted, ending the game.
Lewerke’s athleticism and improvisation are what give Spartan fans hope for the future- a playmaker at quarterback for the first time in over a decade. However, it also leads to plays like this. Lewerke didn’t make these mistakes in the low-scoring wins in the month of October. Faced with the knowledge that he had to make a play for the fourth time, he lost his head.
The defense, ranked fourth in the nation coming in, wilted down the stretch. It should be remembered that they are young, too. The only experienced player that was truly disappointing was Frey. Other than that, these are the growing pains of bringing a daycare center to Chicago for the weekend. The Spartans return home for a marquee matchup with Saquon Barkley and Penn State, who will be heavily favored. Perhaps the friendly environment will result in a better performance.