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'Tired of losing,' Michigan State turns spoiler in handing No. 8 Northwestern first loss

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It had been a while since Michigan State had felt this way.

But on Saturday, the Spartans were discovering a running game, controlling the clock, jumping out to an early lead as the defense was stout all day, forcing big turnover after big turnover.

Not since the Week 2 victory at Michigan had the Spartans found such a rhythm, so when it all started to come together with No. 8 Northwestern in town, it felt like it was about time.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 29, Northwestern 20

“We’re tired of losing,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “That’s what it came down to.”

Michigan State's Jayden Reed, left, catches a pass in the end zone for a touchdown against Northwestern's Cameron Ruiz (18) during the first half.

So, even after allowing Northwestern to score 20 straight points, Michigan State decided it was, indeed, tired of losing. The Spartans tied the game early in the fourth quarter on a Matt Coghlin field goal, then got the winning kick late in the fourth quarter followed by a defensive stop.

It helped seal the 29-20 victory, ending several weeks of frustration while potentially derailing Northwestern’s run to the Big Ten title game.

“Today was a great win for our guys,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “A great win for our coaches, our staff, or our support staff, and also a great win for our State fans, all the Spartan Dawgs out there. I said earlier this week the culture doesn't change overnight. It just doesn't. But wins like today show what type of football we're capable of playing.”

This type of football had been absent most of the season. This type of football meant tough, physical football where the Spartans managed to control the line of scrimmage.

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, left, runs for a first down against Northwestern's Trevor Kent during the fourth quarter.

That’s hardly been the case all year certainly didn’t seem likely against Northwestern, which entered the game as one of the top defenses in the nation. It didn’t seem to bother the Spartans as they ran for 195 yards, led by 94 yards from Connor Heyward.

“I think our O-line played outstanding,” Lombardi said. “Northwestern is a stout run defense, you can look at the numbers. But our line really has progressed all year and they've continued to get better. They played pretty well (against Indiana), in my opinion, and they played very well this week, obviously.

“So I think it just comes down to everybody's getting more comfortable with the scheme. Everybody's getting more comfortable with each other. So we're just going to continue to improve.”

It also helped that the Michigan State defense, which has quietly played well all season, was good again and forced four turnovers. Shakur Brown had two interceptions, his first setting up an early field goal and his second setting up what proved to be the winning kick from Coghlin. The Spartans also forced a pair of fumbles, the second one coming on the final play of the game.

But it was the first fumble that was the biggest.

With Michigan State trailing by three, Lombardi had just thrown an interception and Northwestern took over at the MSU 40. On the next play, though, the Wildcats coughed the ball up and defensive end Jack Camper jumped on it.

More:Spartans get running game revved up in win over Northwestern

Michigan State then moved into position for a 44-yard field goal from Coghlin to tie the game, 20-20.

“That was a definitely a big play,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “The momentum is going to swing back and forth and it's going to swing at any moment, you’ve just got to be ready for that moment. We just so happened to have that momentum swing right after Rocky threw a pick and we were able to get our offense back on the field.”

After the teams traded punts, the defense struck again.

With the game tied at 20, Brown intercepted Northwestern’s Peyton Ramsey, giving Michigan State the ball at midfield with 6:22 to play. The Spartans picked up one first down before Coghlin booted a 49-yard field goal.

Michigan State’s defense then got a three-and-out and the offense picked up one first down before punting with 33 seconds to play. The defense came up big again, even adding a touchdown on the final play as a fumble was recovered in the end zone by Kalon Gervin.

“We want to win and we know that we’ve got the players to win,” Lombardi said. “We all just came together. We knew we had a shot to win this game, and we expected to win the game coming in here.”

Lombardi’s numbers weren’t great – he was 11-for-27 for 167 yards – but he did have two touchdown passes, a 75-yarder to Jalen Nailor and a 15-yarder to Jayden Reed.

Ramsey was 21-for-43 for Northwestern (5-1) but was intercepted twice.

“Really disappointed in the outcome, but we have all our goals in front of us,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t come up here and play clean football and Michigan State did and credit to them.”

Michigan State struck first as the defense got a stop on fourth-and-1 deep in its own end early in the game. The Spartans’ offense responded two plays later when Lombardi hit Nailor down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan State a 7-0 lead with 10:34 left in the first quarter. The Spartans struck again when Brown intercepted a Ramsey pass and returned it 54 yards to the Northwestern 11. However, Michigan State couldn’t find the end zone and settled for a 22-yard field goal from Coghlin to extend the lead to 10-0 with 7:06 left in the first quarter.

Michigan State’s defense then forced a three-and-out before the offense put together arguably its best drive of the season, going 85 yards on 15 plays to take a 17-0 lead after Lombardi hit Reed with a 15-yard touchdown pass, pushing the Spartans’ advantage to 17-0 one play into the second quarter.

Northwestern responded with a pair of Charlie Kuhbander field goals to cut the deficit to 17-6 with 6:35 to play in the half. Michigan State had a chance to extend the lead but Coghlin missed wide left on a 49-yard field-goal attempt with just more than a minute left in the half.

Northwestern opened the second half with an impressive drive, entering Michigan State territory in two plays and then capitalizing on fourth-and-goal from the 1 when Ramsey scored on the naked bootleg to pull the Wildcats within 17-13 with 10:39 to play in the third quarter.

The Michigan State offense managed to do next to nothing throughout the third quarter, running just nine plays as Northwestern took advantage of that and poor special teams play from the Spartans. After forcing a three-and-out, the Wildcats started their next drive at the MSU 37 when Julian Barnett hit the return man before he got the ball. Northwestern capitalized by scoring on a 3-yard run from Cam Porter to take a 20-17 lead with 13:54 left in the fourth quarter before Michigan State rallied.

“We need to continue to move forward, continue to work to get better, to hammer our process, cement our culture,” Tucker said. “That’s where our focus is going to be moving forward. But for today, for these next 24 hours, I’m really, really happy for our players and happy for our fans.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau