Despite Upset Loss, #8 Northwestern Wildcats Still Legit this Year

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pat fitzgerald

Don’t write off the #8 Northwestern Wildcats this season just because of what happened tonight. Saturday afternoon, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, we saw Michigan State continue a trend that’s been a prevailing theme in the recent history of their football program.

MSU football is like that friend you have who is great in a serious crisis, but completely falls to pieces over problems that aren’t really anything much more than everyday minutia. Because they can win the big ones, and lose the small ones, sometimes even in back-to-back weeks.

The Spartans, as two touchdown underdogs, beat Northwestern 29-20, and effectively ended the Wildcats College Football Playoff hopes. This is the same team that started the season with a loss to Rutgers.

So how did MSU pull it off?

First off, they only turned the ball over once today, and won the turnover battle +3, despite entering the game -9 in turnover margin on the season. They were only 124th nationally in rushing offense, coming into this one, but put up 195 yards on the ground today.

Said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald: “Credit Rocky, he played his best game all year.”

pat fitzgerald

“We’ve got to be better against the quarterback draw…it’s really disappointing for us to not play that play correctly.”

Yes, Rocky Lombardi, the man whose name sounds like it was created from a motivational sports content bot, had his slaying Ivan Drago moment. He ran the ball 10 times for 65 yards, usually on designed quarterback draws.

Said NU middle linebacker Paddy Fisher:

“We knew that teams have hit us on draws, so we just have to do better on our keys and executing…Nothing surprised us, we came in with a solid game plan. We just didn’t execute it.”

Lombardi’s passing numbers were far from stellar, but he did enough on the ground, as did the rest of the offense to play ball control. The Spartans defense had arguably their best game of the season too, and it was all of enough for the Green and White to win the yardage and time of possession battles.

In short, the hosts won a game of runs, going up 17-0, falling behind 20-17 before adding an additional six points at the very end of the game.

The other historical trend this game conformed to was that it was tightly contested, like most have been in this series recently.

Two programs with similar styles, values and attributes, this one came down to the wire, just like most matchups have in recent years. The Spartans got their biggest win of the season/Mel Tucker era, but ultimately, their season isn’t really going anywhere.

For Northwestern, well, their New Year’s Six hopes took a hit, but they’re still closing in on their second Big Ten West division title in three years. One more win and they have clinched a spot in Indianapolis.

And they still have the motivational tool of “the Fighting Rece Davises” pejorative to quickly rebound and turn around after this loss.

After the surprise win over top ten Wisconsin last week Fitzgerald recognized talking head Joey Galloway and said that his hot-taking provided some motivation.

“I mean, that really ticked guys off, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he said last Saturday night.

rocky

“It was, I thought, incredibly disrespectful. I just talked to the guys about putting fuel in their engine, man. Just use that as fuel in the engine and just go out and play the way we’re capable. We’ve got really, really good football players.”

“We’ve got outstanding football players, in my opinion.”

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to be potentially All-Big 10, potentially All-American and potentially in the NFL.”

Fitzgerald also said a week ago that sometimes, when his program suffers an unexpected loss, it can all get blown way out of proportion.

“Now, since I’ve been a part of the program, it’s like the we have one bad year and it’s like 19-whatever again,” he said, alluding to the dark ages of the program that preceded 1995.

“I understand that and I respect people’s opinions. But yeah, that was a little bit of extra fuel in the rocket, there’s no question about that.”

Cornerback Greg Newsome II, a first year starter who had to step in due to a COVID-19 opt-out, is having a tremendous season. He was fired up about the Rece Davises commentL

“That’s what they view us as. At the end of the season they can call us Rece Davises all they want as soon as we get to that Big 10 championship and win that. That’s all right with us. It’s just gonna keep fueling us every single week.”

Defensive end Earnest Brown IV, who has some real genuine NFL Draft stock, took it up a notch.

“I feel like I was kind of athletic, you know?” he said. “Rece Davis? I’m just like, dang, it kind of hurt my feelings.”

Northwestern will be fine; that much is clear.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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