EVANSTON, Ill. - The Michigan State defense gave up more points to Northwestern than they had in the entire month leading up to the showdown between the No. 7 ranked and unbeaten Spartans and the one-loss Wildcats, who had two weeks to prepare for the Big Ten leader.
But when it counted, the Spartan defense made the plays needed to keep their team in the game. And after Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins led his team down the field on a memorable 11-play, 88-yard scoring drive to take a 28-27 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Spartan defense turned Northwestern over on downs.
Michigan State's defense then made a final stand to prevent overtime after Spartan sophomore Edwin Baker scored on a 25-yard run with 1:07 remaining in the game.
"I was proud of how our football team stuck together through the tough times and believed," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "There was belief in our guys the whole time."
Fifth-year senior Eric Gordon sealed the game for the Spartans with a rare interception of Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. It was a fitting end of the game for Gordon, who had a handful of near misses during the course of the game while trying to corral the slippery Northwestern quarterback.
"I was just covering up the number three receiver and kind of reading off the QB's eyes," said Gordon of the interception. "We were just playing man-free," recalled Narduzzi. "At the very end, we were in what we call victory coverage, dropping eight and re-routing the heck out of people, and that's the interception that Gordo got."
Gordon finished the game with six tackles. He had one sack to go along with the interception.
Tempo Became A Problem
Depth on defense has been one of the strengths for Michigan State in 2010. That depth has allowed Michigan State to stay fresh when facing teams use tempo to wear down defenses.
Against Northwestern, however, the Spartans were without the services of Kevin Pickelman and Blake Treadwell. The absence of Pickelman and Treadwell was missed on drives where the Spartan defense allowed Northwestern to pick up two or more first downs.
When Michigan State couldn't get off the field, it was usually because Persa was making plays that most quarterbacks do not.
"It was very difficult," said All-American linebacker Greg Jones. "He is a guy that can obviously run, but he can also throw too. He was hitting his guys when they were open and he was making tough passes too. A few times Gordo (Eric Gordon) had him in the backfield and he slipped out of there and completed a pass. He is definitely a playmaker. Preparing to guard him and guarding him are definitely tough."
Narduzzi was pleased with the way his interior defensive linemen fought through the fatigue of being on the field against the fast-paced Northwestern offense.
"Pickelman was out and Treadwell was out," explained Narduzzi. "They will be ready to go next week. If it was an emergency (today) I think they could have gone. But Strayhorn took over and did a heck of a job inside, and had one huge sack. We were light at the d-tackle spot, and guys stepped up and made plays. Strayhorn has been a good inside/outside guy for us all year."
The Spartan defense entered the game with 10 sacks through their first seven games. Michigan State added eight sacks to that number after playing Northwestern. Tyler Hoover and Johnathan Strayhorn paved the way with two sacks apiece. Jerel Worthy had a sack and a half in the win.
"We got good three-man pressure, four-man pressure," said Narduzzi. "On the second-to-last drive, we kept our four d-linemen in there. Our four d-linemen were begging to stay in there, so that series, we went with something we really hadn't practiced, ever. We kept our four d-linemen in, and took Chris Norman out and put Isaiah Lewis in as our nickel back and did a great job."
Hoover recorded sacks in back-to-back weeks for the first time in his Spartan career. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound sophomore was named the defensive player of the week for the Spartans for his 9 tackle performance against Illinois.
"He just keeps getting better," explained Narduzzi. "There was a time early in the season when we were kind of getting after him and his dad always says, 'Don't yell at him. He's not motivated by yelling.' But we've been yelling at him more and I think it's better. So we have Tyler playing great. He is playing with a lot of confidence."
Worthy was dominant during the fourth quarter.
"He's an explosive guy," Narduzzi said. "He jumped off-sides at the end. That's his first time since the opener, so we'll have to get after him about that."
Northwestern has struggled to protect Persa this season. The Wildcats were giving up 3.57 sacks per game entering their homecoming showdown with Michigan State.
Northwestern ranked dead last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed before their game with Michigan State.
Persa A Handful
Northwestern entered the game ranked No. 12 in the country in third-down completion percentage. The Wildcats converted 50 percent of their third-downs during the first half of the season.
Those numbers held up against the Spartans, as Northwestern moved the chains on 8 of their 16 third-down conversion attempts. Persa was the primary reason why Northwestern's offense converted a high percentage.
"We brought five guys once, but it looked like six, and he still snuck out on that third-and-seven," Narduzzi said. "He's a great football player. He's athletic. I think we tagged him a few times, and in the fourth quarter he was maybe a little woozy."
Persa scored three touchdowns against the Spartans. That number is one rushing touchdown shy of the total number of rushing touchdowns allowed by the Spartans during the 2010 season.