"I'm bitterly disappointed that they didn't walk off that field as winners," NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the seniors. "I take that responsibility as a coach and we're going to work out tails off to get that fixed."
Once touted as a potential Big Ten sleeper, Northwestern ended its regular season with six wins, and of course, six disappointing losses.
"I don't think we're that far away at all," Fitzgerald animatedly said. "That's probably what's most disappointing right now. For how darn close we are, and for us not to coach our guys well enough to get to that point is incredibly disappointing."
Saturday's loss was just another disappointment in a season full of them.
The floodgates opened late in the second quarter, with the score knotted at three. With the Wildcats sitting just outside the endzone, Treyvon Green fumbled at the three-yard line, and Michigan State's Denzel Drone recovered.
The freshman running back did not see the field after his fumble, which would be costly in the long run.
"I thought we played decently well," said NU quarterback Dan Persa. "But we can't turn the ball over going into score."
That fumble would go down as the first major setback for Northwestern, and the ultimate turning point of the game.
MSU senior quarterback Kirk Cousins helped his team get the lead and momentum, driving the Spartans 97 yards. The key play of the drive came on a 46-yard completion to Keshawn Martin, who beat NU redshirt freshman cornerback Daniel Jones. On the very next play, Le'Veon Bell juked Jones, and scored from seven yards out, giving the Spartans the lead.
Late in the first half, Northwestern looked to run out the clock and get to halftime, rather than attempting to drive the field. That mistake would be costly.
A Northwestern three-and-out setup a Brandon Williams punt. His lengthy kick would land in the hands of Keshawn Martin, who ran 57 yards for the touchdown, going untouched down the sidelines.
The Wildcats' punt coverage had been spectacular all season, allowing just three total yards entering Saturday's game. The unit's lone blunder of the season would be costly
"We gave up 60 yard for the year and 57 of them really hurt," Fitzgerald said.
After a lethargic first half, Northwestern immediately found the endzone to start the third quarter, thanks to a Jeremy Ebert touchdown catch, and the Wildcats' deficit was cut to a touchdown.
The Spartans immediately responded with a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a B.J. Cunningham 33-yard touchdown catch—his first of two.
The Wildcats opened the fourth quarter with a touchdown drive, as Dan Persa hit junior receiver Demetrius Fields, making it, again, a one-possession game.
NU had a chance for a game-tying drive, but a 10-yard holding penalty and nine-yard sack of Dan Persa setup a failed third-and-29 attempted.
The Spartans marched 93 yards down the field, while milking precious fourth-quarter clock, and they would put the game away. Kirk Cousins connected with BJ Cunningham for a second touchdown pass—this one being an impressive juggling catch—giving Michigan State a 14-point lead, and throwing in the dagger.
So close, yet so far—again.
There was no miraculous comeback in store for the Northwestern seniors in their final home game. Instead, the 25 seniors, who delivered many memorable wins during their career, walked off Ryan Field for the final time, in defeat.
A Northwestern win over Michigan State would have drastically improved its spot in the Big Ten bowl pecking order. Still sitting at six wins, the Wildcats will wait to hear their bowl fate in eight days.
Fitzgerald hopes to send the senior class out with a win in a bowl game, as Northwestern aims for its first bowl victory in 62 years. In the meantime, he hopes to clean up after another messy loss.
"We will coach our tails off in the next month," Fitzgerald said. "Those young guys that have been out there are going to come back out to practice their butts off. We're going to grind them up. When we find out who we're going to play, we're going to come up with a great game plan to send these seniors off as winners."
For now, the Wildcats hope and wait.
• Senior quarterback Dan Persa completed 23 of 42 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
• Running back Jacob Schmidt finished with just 39 yards on 14 carries, averaging a meager 2.8 yards per carry.
• Superback Drake Dunsmore sparked the Wildcats down the field with a 69-yard reception, which was his longest career reception.
• Junior receiver Demetrius Fields caught his third touchdown pass in as many games.
• Redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell added eight tackles, which puts him at 89 on the season, which leads the team.
• Senior receiver Jeremy Ebert caught his 11th touchdown pass of the season. He is now one more score shy of D'Wayne Bates' all-time record of 12.