EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — With Northwestern again holding a late lead, coach Pat Fitzgerald was willing to punt the ball away and put his defense on the spot.
This time, the Wildcats held firm.
Northwestern forced four straight incompletions by Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell to close out a 23-20 victory over the Spartans on Saturday. The victory came a week after the Wildcats lost in overtime at Michigan following a last-ditch pass by the Wolverines at the end of regulation.
“The guys responded when we got back off the bus a week ago, from Ann Arbor,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s when this game started.”
Jeff Budzien kicked a 27-yard field goal with 7:30 remaining, and Northwestern was able to hold on to this fourth-quarter lead. The Wildcats (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) forced a punt near midfield, but Fitzgerald decided to punt back to Michigan State on fourth-and-1 from the Northwestern 49. That gave the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) the ball back at their own 20 with 1:29 left.
Dion Sims was unable to hold on to Maxwell’s fourth-down pass, ending the Spartans’ final threat.
“It was great in so many ways from what happened last week to, in our careers, no one on our team has beaten Michigan State,” Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “It felt great to get the win.”
Michigan State had the ball for 34:19 but turned it over four times.
Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian threw for 165 yards, including a 41-yard pass to Dan Vitale that helped set up the winning kick.
Northwestern lost fourth-quarter leads in gut-wrenching losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. Last weekend’s defeat at Michigan unfolded in stunning fashion when Devin Gardner heaved a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree to set up the Wolverines’ tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation. Michigan went on to win 38-31.
The Wildcats recovered from that tough finish, and now Michigan State must do the same. All seven of Michigan State’s conference games have been decided by four points or fewer — the first time that’s happened to any Big Ten team since at least 1996, according to STATS, LLC.
“We keep pressing forward and talking about playing yourself out of this,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s a test and you’re under fire under the test and you have to be able to respond and persevere through these things.”
It was Northwestern’s first win over Michigan State since 2007, and the Spartans must now beat Minnesota next weekend to become bowl eligible.
The Wildcats spoiled Michigan State’s home finale despite what was announced as an upper extremity injury to running back Venric Mark, who didn’t play in the second half. Siemian and Kain Colter split time at quarterback for the Wildcats. Colter went 13 of 20 for 81 yards and a touchdown but was shaken up toward the end of the game.
Northwestern led 13-5 early in the third quarter after Nwabuisi returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown. Maxwell seemed shaken up on the play, but he was able to keep playing and quickly led the Spartans on a sharp 65-yard drive that ended with his 15-yard scoring pass to Aaron Burbridge. A 2-point conversion pass to Keith Mumphery tied it at 13.
Colter’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Tim Riley gave Northwestern a 20-13 lead, but the Spartans tied it again on a 6-yard scoring pass from Maxwell to Tony Lippett with 9:22 left in the fourth.
Michigan State lost the ball twice inside the Northwestern 5-yard line in the first half. A fumble on the snap gave the Wildcats the ball at their own 2 late in the first quarter, but moments later, Colter was hit in the end zone by Max Bullough and William Gholston for a safety that made it 3-2.
“I thought the White Sox were playing the Tigers — looked like a baseball game,” Fitzgerald said. “But again, a road win in the Big Ten comes with a great price.”
Michigan State led 5-3 in the second and had the ball at the Northwestern 1, but star running back Le’Veon Bell was dropped for a loss of 3 on fourth down.
The Wildcats took a 6-5 lead into halftime when Budzien made a 43-yard field goal in the final minute of the quarter, and Michigan State’s Dan Conroy missed from 37 at the other end.
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