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Evanston, Ill. — Michigan State entered Saturday’s matchup with Northwestern as the No. 4 overall defense in the nation and ranked ninth against the pass.

Those numbers took a beating in Northwestern’s 39-31, triple-overtime victory as the Wildcats threw for 368 yards, nearly 200 yards more than the Spartans were giving up this season.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson finished 33-for-48 for 356 yards and two touchdowns while running back Justin Jackson threw a 12-yard touchdown pass.

“Defensively we stopped the run but I felt like the run after the catch,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “it wasn’t so much the deep ball, but the run after catch. The run after catch hurt us.”

Northwestern was effective running plenty of short crossing routes against the Spartans, who did little to slow things down. So, the Wildcats kept going to it again and again. Michigan State was able to contain Northwestern to 17 points in regulation, but in overtime, the Wildcats moved with ease.

More: Lewerke's record-setting day for MSU marred by misses

They scored in two plays in the first overtime, four plays in the second and in the third overtime, on third-and-7 from the 22, a crossing pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel went for what proved to be the winning touchdown.

“I felt like they were able to find the weak spot in our defense a few times early in the game, throughout the game, actually,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “They were throwing the shorter passes and getting yards. We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing wrong and get it right for next week.”

While there were some coverage busts, including Frey’s on the Northwestern touchdown in the first overtime, the fact Michigan State couldn’t pressure Thorson consistently was a big factor.

The Spartans finished with just one sack against a team that entered the game allowing 23.

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Brian Lewerke, Chris Frey, Felton Davis and Joe Bachie discuss Spartans' first defeat in Big Ten play. Matt Charboneau

“No idea,” Frey said when asked why the pass rush was lacking. “They’re a team that gave up 23 sacks this year and we’ve done a good job getting to the quarterback this year. I don’t know what they were doing, what we were doing wrong. Obviously, we didn’t get to the quarterback.”

It made guarding the quick passes that much tougher.

“It’s difficult to run from one side of the field to the other and be in great coverage if he’s gonna have time to throw the football,” Dantonio said. “If you send six guys you’ve got to pressure the quarterback. Give Thorson credit. He stood in the pocket and played very effectively. (Justin Jackson) is a football player. They found ways to get the ball in his hands. He didn’t run for that much, but they found a way to get him the ball in space, dumping it to him out there and we couldn’t get him down. They moved the chains. It’s not like they were ripping off 40-yarders but they were moving the chains on us.”

Michigan State’s defense now must regroup quickly with games the next two weeks against the top offenses in the Big Ten — Penn State and Ohio State.

“Hats off to them, they were making great plays out there,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “They had a great game plan for us and we have to react better.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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