When undefeated Northwestern hosted a nationally ranked Michigan State team two Octobers ago, the Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead and wound up winning by that 17-point margin.
The Wildcats remembered that dreadful start on homecoming this year and turned the tables on No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday.
NU jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, but a massive fourth-quarter collapse led to a 35-27 Big Ten loss as the Wildcats missed a terrific chance to pull off their second upset over a Top 10 team in the last 12 months.
"We had every opportunity to win that football game," coach Pat Fitzgerald said in the Daily Herald. "We've got to find a way to make some plays down the stretch against good football teams. That's what it came down to."
With quarterback Dan Persa plunging for a touchdown in each of the first three quarters, Northwestern had a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. But Michigan State produced 21 points in the final 13 minutes, 12 seconds.
The Wildcats fell victim to a fake punt called "Mouse Trap," failed to slow down quarterback Kirk Cousins even though he was throwing into a fierce wind, failed to protect Persa and failed to avoid costly penalties.
Among the big fourth-quarter differences:
--Persa suffered three of his eight sacks and hit just 3 of 9 passes for 35 yards and one interception. Cousins hit 10 of 14 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
--After Michigan State took its first lead on B.J. Cunningham's spectacular one-handed catch with 2:00 to go, the Wildcats had all three of their timeouts and needed to drive just 40 yards to give Stefan Demos a 44-yard chance -- a relatively easy task with a massive wind at his back. Instead, left tackle Al Netter committed a 15-yard personal foul on the drive's first play (he wrenched off Michigan State defensive end Colin Neely's helmet) to get NU behind the chains.
--Going back even further, Michigan State's coaches picked up a Northwestern tendency when in "safe punt" mode. Cornerback Jordan Mabin, responsible for checking MSU gunner Bennie Fowler, chucked him for 10-15 yards before bailing toward the sideline to avoid getting hit by a punt. Spartans punter Aaron Bates, running a fake punt code-named "The Mouse Trap," waited for Mabin to move and then flipped a 21-yard pass to Fowler on fourth-and-11.
One play later, Cousins tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to kick-start the Spartans' comeback. For the second game in a row, Northwestern ended up coughing up a fourth-quarter lead and couldn't recover.
"I think our entire program will look at this game with a very critical eye," Fitzgerald said. "And guys are going to have to swallow a pretty heavy pill. You look at yourself in the mirror. Me included."
--Though Northwestern surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday and lost 35-27, the Wildcats might have found the foundation of a running game.
Though Dan Persa's seven scrambles and eight sacks accounted for a healthy chunk of NU's 47 rushing attempts, the Wildcats posted 170 net rushing yards. That was their best effort in a Big Ten game since Nov. 1, 2008, when quarterback Mike Kafka rushed for 217 yards at Minnesota. True freshman Adonis Smith was the first back off the bench, posting 44 yards in 10 carries -- both career-highs. Redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy rushed 10 times for 50 yards.
Persa rushed 22 times for 46 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman wideout Venric Mark took an end-around for 29 yards, which marked the team's longest gain since 2008. The only downer? Starting running back Jacob Schmidt lost a fumble at Michigan State's 2-yard line late in the first quarter. Schmidt hurt his ankle on the play and didn't return.
--Junior quarterback Dan Persa suffered through his least successful game this year, at least as far as completion percentage is concerned. The nation's leader in that category entering Saturday's game (78.0 percent) hit just 18 of 29 passes for 187 yards. He failed to throw a TD pass for the second game in a row, while his lone interception came in desperation time with less than a minute to go and NU trailing by 8. Persa dropped to eighth in the national efficiency ratings.
--Northwestern has scored first in all seven games this year. However, in each of the Wildcats' three Big Ten games, the team that led after three quarters wound up losing.
GAME BALL GOES TO: QB Dan Persa -- Despite facing fierce pressure all afternoon, the junior quarterback accounted for 233 of Northwestern's 385 total yards and scored all three touchdowns. Of the Wildcats' 23 offensive touchdowns, Persa has thrown for 10 and rushed for six.
KEEP AN EYE ON: RB Adonis Smith -- With starter Jacob Schmidt fumble-prone and injured, this true freshman could make his first start this week at Indiana. Smith rushed a career-high 10 times for 44 yards against Michigan State. He also had a reception brought back by a penalty. Smith gives NU a back with a second gear to get away from defenders.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "No. 1, we've got to be more disciplined. I don't know what the issue is right now, but if it's personnel-based I'm going to fix it. We're going to find a way to play with some more discipline." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, in the Daily Herald, after his Wildcats moved into the Big Ten lead for most penalties committed and most sacks allowed.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Junior QB Dan Persa rushed for three touchdowns against Michigan State: on a 3-yard draw, a 1-yard plunge and a 6-yard scramble where he spun near the goal line to avoid a hit from Michigan State All-American LB Greg Jones.
--OLB Quentin Davie and DT Corbin Bryant each posted three quarterback hurries. OLB Bryce McNaul registered a game- and career-high 10 tackles that included one sack and one forced fumble.
--Freshman RBs Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith combined for 20 carries and 94 yards. Better yet for the Wildcats, neither was caught for a loss. That was an issue earlier in the season.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Though Michigan State had to throw into a fierce wind in the fourth quarter, Northwestern gave up 144 yards and two touchdowns through the air in the period. That included a 21-yard pass on a fake punt that kept alive MSU's first of three touchdown drives.
--Junior RB Jacob Schmidt lost a fumble on first-and-goal from the MSU 1-yard line. That's his fourth fumble of the year and the second lost.
--Though it doesn't help that Dan Persa likes to hold the ball and try to make a play downfield, Northwestern's offensive line was credited with allowing eight sacks. That's 13 in the last two games and a Big Ten-worst 25 for the season.
--Starting DE Vince Browne (shoulder) didn't start and played sparingly in the first half, but he came through late in the fourth quarter with a sack in which he forced a fumble. NU couldn't recover, though, and Michigan State went ahead and scored its go-ahead touchdown.
--Starting Superback Drake Dunsmore didn't start and played sparingly as a decoy after tweaking his ankle in practice. Dunsmore entered the game as NU's No. 2 receiver with 222 catches for 231 yards and three TDs, but the Wildcats didn't throw his way all day.
--Starting RB Jacob Schmidt rolled his ankle on the play where he lost a fumble on first-and-goal from the MSU 1. He did not return and his status is unknown for the Indiana game. However, Schmidt and sophomore Arby Fields have tumbled down the depth chart after losing fumbles earlier this season.
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