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November 26, 2011

Quick hitters: Missed opportunities

EVANSTON-Northwestern came up short in its bid for a fifth straight victory, falling 31-17 to No. 11 Michigan State.

Here's the two-minute drill:



Story of the game: Coach Pat Fitzgerald lamented about the opportunities to win that his team missed in this contest, including the chance to send the winningest senior class in Northwestern history off the field with a victory in their last home game. "If the punt was closer to the boundary, taking care of the ball in the red zone, the protection and communication issues," he said. "All those little things add up to success and unfortunately, momentary failure." It was a game of big plays at Ryan Field, and Michigan State simply made more than Northwestern.



Game ball: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver B.J. Cunningham will share the award. Cousins finished 14-of-20 passing for 214 yards and two touchdowns, and whenever he needed a big play, he looked for his big playmaker Cunningham, who had six catches for 120 yards and both scores himself. And Cunningham's catches were big ones: he had a 33-yard TD on a third-and-13 in the third quarter, and a 33-yard score on third-and-17 in the fourth.



Turning point: This game took an ugly turn for Northwestern after a disastrous sequence in the last two minutes of the first half. After Michigan State scored a TD to take a 10-3 lead, Northwestern took over at its own 24 with 1:40 left. The Cats ran three plays and went backwards, losing a yard, and MSU called two timeouts during the possession to take one last shot at scoring. They got it when NU's Brandon Williams uncorked a 34-yard rugby punt that Keshawn Martin fielded on one hop. He cut to the right sideline and once he got to the corner, he was gone. The 57-yard return put the Spartans up 17-3 at the half and Northwestern never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.



Final nail: This game wasn't decided until the last Cousins-to-Cunningham scoring pass of the day. MSU was holding onto a 24-17 lead and faced a third-and-17 at the NU 29 when Cousins found Cunningham on a post pattern. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder got his hand on the ball at about the 10 and bobbled and bounced it around a couple times -- all with cornerback Daniel Jones on his hip -- before finally cradling it in the end zone.



Big play: The score was tied 3-3 in the second quarter when Northwestern went on a 15-play, 62-yard march to the MSU 6. There, on a second-and-3, freshman Treyvon Green picked up three yards on a run up the middle. He was hit by Max Bullough and, as his knee was hitting the ground, coughed up the football, which was recovered by MSU's Denzel Drone. Fitzgerald called a timeout in hopes of an official review, but the booth never reviewed the play. The Spartans took over and went 97 yards in eight plays to get a 10-3 lead they would never relinquish.



Telling numbers: The statistics were remarkably close for a game that was decided by two touchdowns (MSU outgained Northwestern 380 to 370), but the one area where Michigan State showed its supremacy was on third-down conversions. The Spartans converted 8-of-13 opportunities, including two of them with double-digit distances to cover. The last MSU scoring drive told the story: on a third-and-4, Cousins hit Cunningham for a 25-yard gain. Then, facing a third-and-17, the two connected again for a 29-yard TD.



Surprise of the day: Northwestern lost four-year starting cornerback Jordan Mabin to a right shoulder injury in the first quarter. Instead of Ricky Weina or Demetrius Dugar, the two corners listed as the backups on the depth chart, the Wildcats inserted Jones, a redshirt freshman. Both of the upperclassmen were available but Jones's performance in practice had earned him the opportunity to play, said Fitzgerald. The injury turned out to be a costly one, as Jones was often tasked with defending Cunningham or Martin one-on-one. On one series, Jones was run over by Le'Veon Bell, victimized on a 46-yard pass to Martin, and then juked by Bell on his TD run. He was also covering Cunningham on both of the wideout's touchdown catches.



Topic of conversation: Dan Persa had another efficient game, completing 23-of-32 throws for 245 yards and two touchdowns, but he was also sacked six times for 31 yards in losses, and could have endured twice as many. On one memorable play, 310-pound defensive tackle Jerel Worthy went airborne and bellyflopped on top of the NU quarterback. Michigan State's defensive line was overpowering at times, and the Spartans used blitzes to put heat on Persa throughout the game.



Getting defensive: Jeravin Matthews was Northwestern's standout on defense and played much bigger than his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame. The senior recorded a game-high nine tackles and repeatedly strung out Michigan State's sweeps, even standing up the 237-pound Bell. He also came up with the lone interception of the game, in the second quarter, when he got inside position on Cunningham, who outweighs him by 35 pounds, and outmuscled him for the ball.




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