Mark Dantonio knew his team missed opportunities.
Whether it was not stopping Northwestern on third down or not converting red-zone opportunities, Dantonio said his team missed chances to lead against the Wildcats.
And those missed chances gave No. 20 Michigan State its first loss of Big Ten play, as the Spartans fell to Northwestern 29-19 Saturday afternoon.
“I thought we had opportunities to come away with a win,” Dantonio said in his postgame news conference. “Fought back at the end of the game. Too many missed opportunities I would say whether it be third down and getting off the field or maybe on offense there were some missed opportunities in the red zone. Gotta score touchdowns down there, can't give up big plays.”
The Spartans totaled 420 yards, while quarterback Brian Lewerke completed 31-of-51 passes for 329 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Wide receiver Felton Davis III was the lead wideout, catching seven passes for 96 yards and a touchdown, while having a team-high 50 rushing yards on two attempts and a touchdown.
The Wildcats had 382 yards of offense, led by quarterback Clayton Thorson who went 31-of-47 for 373 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, while running it in from 2-yards out for the game-sealing touchdown. Wide receiver Flynn Nagel led Northwestern with 10 catches for 111 yards.
And while the Spartans did out-gain the Wildcats, Dantonio said MSU didn’t do enough to support the yards.
“It’s not in the yards sometimes, it’s in the production and points behind it,” Dantonio said. “Get down to the red zone, you know, you gotta get it in. Some of that is execution, some of that is play calling, some of that may be decision making, actually… Some of it is Northwestern playing well, too.”
The game was scoreless for the first 14 minutes of the first quarter, until kicker Matt Coghlin hit a 27-yard field goal with 59 seconds left after safety Khari Willis intercepted Thorson and putting the Spartans on the Wildcats’ 39-yard line.
But after a 2-yard loss by Northwestern running back Drake Martinez, Thorson hit a wide open receiver in Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown pass to give the Wildcats a 7-3 lead with 18 seconds left in the first quarter.
After a three-and-out for MSU to start the second quarter, Thorson threw it 34 yards to wide receiver JJ Jefferson for Thorson's second touchdown of the afternoon with 13:58 still to go in the first half.
“If he didn't have to get happy feet in the pocket, if he could just set his feet and throw, he's as good as we've seen,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “There were a couple long ones that he put right on the money when we were in good coverage. (Cornerback) Tre Person was in good coverage, (linebacker) Tyriq Thompson was in good coverage, and he put it right on the money. We couldn't get our hand on the football. Credit to them for executing.”
Two possessions later, Coghlin hit 25-yard field goal to make it 14-6 with 2:50 left in the half. Coghlin’s field goal was also his 16th-straight made, which broke a program record 15-straight set by Brett Swenson in 2008.
After MSU’s defense forced a three-and-out, Lewerke completed 4-of-5 passes, before throwing an interception to safety Jared McGee in the middle of the field with 1:07 left in the first half, keeping the score 14-6 at halftime.
To start of the second half, MSU and Northwestern were both forced to punt
After a 42-yard touchback by Northwestern punter Jake Collins, the Spartans would run three pass plays — 21-yarder to Davis, incompletion to tight end Matt Sokol and 11-yarder to wideout Cam Chambers.
All of which set up Davis’ 48-yard touchdown run with 7:18 left in the third quarter — his first career rushing touchdown and longest run at MSU. The Spartans also failed to convert a 2-point conversion after Davis’ run, making it 14-12.
On the second play Northwestern’s next drive, defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk intercepted Thorson’s pass on the Wildcats’ 33.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Pansiuk said. “Just gotta keep going, and hopefully get another one in the future.”
Panasiuk’s interception resulted in a 3-yard pass to Davis, making it 19-14 with 4:08 left in the third quarter.
“Everybody depended on me today to make plays and for the most part, I did what I could,” Davis said. “I know I left some plays still out there that I wish I could've made. So I just, for the most part, tried to make as many plays as I could.”
However, the following NU possession gave the Wildcats with Thorson throwing a 21-yard touchdown pass to slotback Cameron Green with 15 seconds left in the third. Thorson then completed a 2-point conversion pass to running back Solomon Vault to give Northwestern the 22-19 lead.
“Clayton put the ball in a perfect spot,” Green said. “If you go back and watch it, I don't think I broke any stride and the guy was right on top of me and the ball was literally right there. It all starts with Clayton and the guys up front, giving him enough time to throw that ball. Just trusting that whole play throughout.”
With over three minutes left in the game, Dantonio decided to for on it fourth-and-1 on MSU's 11. Lewerke handed the ball to running back Connor Heyward for an inside run. He was stuffed.
Dantonio said he felt if MSU could get the first down, it would gain momentum. If the Spartans didn't get it, Dantonio said it would give Northwestern a small amount of field to work with, which would give ball to MSU's offense quicker. Another "game of inches."
"I was pretty certain that we were going to get the first down so I was playing the percentages, but taking an aggressive approach," Dantonio said. "I'm sure that most people out there could've punted on fourth-and-1, down by three, two something to go. Like I said, it's a game of inches."
The failed fourth-down conversion eventually resulted in a 2-yard run by Thorson with 2:51 left in the game, making it 29-19 Northwestern, and giving MSU its first Big Ten loss of the season.
“Hostile environment, Big Ten road atmosphere against an outstanding State team,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “And for us to be resilient down the stretch I think is starting to show a little bit of our maturity growing and our character always being the backbone of who we are. “
Which, according to Willis, was a result of too many mistakes in clutch situations — a theme so far this season.
“That’s when the game is decided,” said Willis, who also had five total tackles along with his interception. “But like I said, it’s mistakes. Little small things, technical things, that we just got to be better at. It’s no secret to it, no secret formula. You gotta play better football in the fourth quarter.”
The Spartans will now look to bounce back next week at No. 11 Penn State, with kickoff at 3:30 p.m. The network which will televise the game has yet be announced.
“We’ll find the answers,” Dantonio said. “I’m pretty confident in that. We’ll right the ship.”