EVANSTON, Ill. — After winning their first four Big Ten games by a combined 22 points, Michigan State’s luck ran out on Saturday evening. On the road at a pesky Northwestern team, the Spartans (6-2, 4-1 B1G) fell 39-31 thanks to a 22-yard touchdown catch by the Wildcats’ Flynn Nagel.
Michigan State’s first loss in Big Ten play came just one week before matchups with AP top 10 teams Penn State and Ohio State. Call it a trap game, call it looking ahead to the next opponent, call it what you like: MSU missed too many opportunities to win on the road.
“We made plays, but we just came up short,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We left points off the board, it was disappointing.”
The Spartans got off to a quick start, as quarterback Brian Lewerke found freshman receiver Cody White for 60 yards on the fourth play of the game. On third down from the Northwestern (5-3, 2-2 B1G) six-yard line, Lewerke was forced to scramble outside of the pocket but found White near the pylon for an opening-drive touchdown.
White was Lewerke’s favorite receiver on the day, following up his 99-yard effort against Indiana with a 165-yard performance and two touchdowns. Lewerke looked solid early on, but missed a few open receivers in the middle portion of the game. His late fourth-quarter drive was impressive, and was capped off by an excellent Felton Davis catch with 25 seconds remaining in regulation, but a few more on-target throws and the Spartans would be 7-1.
“I need to do a better job hitting the open guys,” Lewerke said. “It seems like I can only hit the covered ones.” Lewerke finished with a school-record 445 yards, with four touchdowns and a game-ending interception.
By the time the game got to its extra sessions, the MSU defense was physically spent. Three consecutive overtime drives were scored with relative ease by Clayton Thorson and the Wildcat offense.
“They were able to find our weak spots,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “We have to figure out what we were doing wrong.”
Northwestern scored on all three of their possessions in overtime, an unusual occurrence for a Spartan defense that was among the nation’s elite heading into Saturday. Star running back Justin Jackson was held to 41 yards rushing, but had seven catches for 51 yards and what felt like numerous third-down conversions. The Wildcats finished the night 7 of 15 on third down, and were able to sustain drives on short crossing routes in space combined with yards after the catch.
The Spartans nearly busted the game open in the first quarter after their opening-drive score, but White fumbled an end-around at the Northwestern 10-yard line. From there, it was mainly a defensive struggle.
The game was tied at the half thanks to a short touchdown run from Thorson, but Northwestern took a fourth-quarter lead thanks to a trick play. Jackson received a toss to the right side and threw to receiver Bennett Skowronek for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 10:49 remaining in regulation.
From there, Lewerke led a 12-play, 88-yard drive in just 2:49 to tie the game up. In overtime, Northwestern tight end Cameron Green caught a 14-yard touchdown pass, and after Lewerke found Davis again and White on the following possession, Jackson sent the game into a third overtime.
Wildcat receiver Flynn Nagel caught a third-down, 22-yard pass from Thorson to take the lead. On MSU’s next possession in the third overtime, Lewerke was stripped in the pocket and recovered the fumble, only to send a downfield pass into the hands of Northwestern’s Nate Hall, ending MSU’s unbeaten start to the Big Ten season. They play Penn State on Nov. 4, a time for kickoff is to be determined.