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Physicality and turnovers: How MSU upset Northwestern in East Lansing

November 28, 2020
<p>Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) leaving the pocket to run the ball in the game against Northwestern on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.</p>

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (12) leaving the pocket to run the ball in the game against Northwestern on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Photo by Di'Amond Moore | The State News

Mel Tucker closed his eyes at practice leading up to MSU’s game against Northwestern.

He heard the physicality in a way he hadn’t before.

“In our team run periods when we had the pads on, they started to sound, the practices started to sound like they are supposed to sound,” Tucker said when asked about the practices leading up to Saturday's game. “The physicality, you could close your eyes and actually hear a physical football team on both sides of the ball. When you start to get that feel, you start to get that physicality, it's something that players look forward to.”

The physicality he heard in practice came through in the game Saturday as MSU upset undefeated Northwestern at Spartan Stadium. 

It manifested itself in forcing four turnovers and gaining 195 rushing yards on 47 attempts. All those numbers are season highs for MSU.

“In some of our previous games we felt like we were very close in the run game,” Tucker said. “From an offensive line standpoint, tight ends blocking, runners hitting the hole and just understanding where the power of the play is and where the runs need to hit. We had some plays we were able to show our guys (and say), ‘If we do it right, we’re efficient in the run game’, and we were able to build on those.”

Tucker has preached that physicality all season. It was missing as MSU lost 49-7 to Iowa on the road and 24-0 to Indiana at home. But on Saturday, Tucker finally got through to his team in a 29-20 victory over one of the best teams in the Big Ten and FBS

MSU had four turnovers, the final one for a touchdown with zeroes on the clock to capitalize the upset as Kalon Gervin rolled onto the football in the endzone.

Connor Heyward had 96 rushing yards, and quarterback Rocky Lombardi had 65 of his own. The Spartans imposed their will despite only averaging 73.8 rushing yards a game coming into Saturday’s game.

“I think over the last two weeks we really got better and improved in the run game,” Heyward said after the game. “ We really worked on our craft these past two weeks, having that week off we didn’t take any days off. We went to work everyday whether that was just film or a lift.”

A defense that gave up 49 points to Iowa, only allowed 20 to Northwestern. MSU gave up just 63 total rushing yards in the game on 1.7 yards a carry.

Northwestern, a team that has prided itself on physical dominance all season, met its match in its first loss all year.

A physicality not yet seen on both sides of the ball

The Spartan offensive line that struggled helped keep Lombardi upright. He only had one interception as he returned in the starting quarterback position for MSU while not being sacked once.

MSU’s defense flew to the ball Saturday. Shakur Brown had two interceptions to tie the lead for the most in the Big Ten by a single player and Drew Beesley also had two sacks.

Underclassmen Michael Fletcher, Deshaun Mallory and Angelo Grose shined maybe the most of any of the young MSU defense. 

Grose had six tackles, five of them solo. Fletcher consistently put pressure on Northwestern quarterback Payton Ramsey. Antjuan Simmons led MSU with 13 total tackles and a sack.

It was the physical dominance and aggressive style of defense that was the difference.

“The past two or three weeks, the ball has been emphasized like crazy,” Simmons said. “We made it a priority to get after the ball, whether you’re a D-Lineman, linebacker, safety or DB. You get an opportunity to punch at the ball, you take a shot. You get an opportunity to rip at it, you rip. If you pick it off and run it back? You better catch it and run it back. We’re emphasizing the ball.”

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On offense, MSU ran Lombardi in ways they hadn’t before. Tucker has spoken so much during the season about commanding the run game. On Saturday, MSU did just that as the Spartan offense put the ball on the ground 47 times, for an average of 4.1 yards per carry. 

MSU didn’t have a run longer than 20 yards in the game, but nearly tripled the Wildcats output in that category.

“Honestly I think we’re just tired of losing," Lombardi said. "I think that’s what it comes down to. We want to win, and we know we got the players to win and we all just came together. We knew we had a shot to win this game. … It was all about what do we need to improve on and how can we do that.” 

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