EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Wildcats have lived on the edge all season long and Saturday night on the road they finally fell off.
The offense turned the ball over four times, which was one too many to overcome as Michigan State outlasted Northwestern 29-20. The humbling loss was the first this fall for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad and dropped them from No. 11 to 16 in the latest AP Poll.
Although the Wildcats ran more plays and converted more first downs than the Spartans, they played undisciplined and lacked enthusiasm at times. It was all confusing for Fitzgerald because he thought his team had a great week of practice and they all seemed focused heading into the matchup. Which is why he’s anxious to watch film on Monday to see what went wrong.
“That’s the great thing about football, you got to do the things that winners do,” Fitzgerald said. “Ball security is critical to success and being consistently successful, and our inability to do that obviously led to points.”
Fitzgerald didn’t think his team played complimentary football and had too many self-inflicted wounds. The offensive line allowed four sacks, but Fitzgerald thought the unit handled the pressure well. Despite the fact that the Wildcats’ defense generated three sacks, they still lost several one-on-one battles out in coverage, which was critical down the stretch.
“I think the difference is the turnovers, it stalls drives,” Fitzgerald said. “Our defense did a great job rising to the occasion, but you can’t be spotting teams 10 points and think you’re going to win.”
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey shoulders a lot of the struggles on offense. However, an effective rushing attack would’ve kept some of the pressure off the signal-caller. The Wildcats steamrolled for 616 yards on the ground through their first three games, but only 167 over the last three clashes. Northwestern (5-1) got off to a slow start and was held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time since playing Nebraska.
“We moved the ball well, especially there in the first half, it’s just about sustaining drives and scoring touchdowns in the red zone,” Ramsey said. “There’s small things that show up every week so I’m no going to pinpoint one thing, each teams team gives you a challenge every week.”
Ramsey knows his two interceptions put the team in unfamiliar situations and he wants the offense to get better at playing situational football. The Wildcats had issues on defense also, which is normally the team’s bread and butter. Michigan State hurt Northwestern at critical times with the quarterback draws and Fitzgerald thought Rocky Lombardi played his best game of the season.
Senior linebacker Paddy Fisher was disappointed with the defense’s performance, but remains confident the unit will pick up the pieces.
“We’re just keeping our mindset on an attacking perspective and not letting circumstances dictate our attitude,” Fisher said. “I think we need to be better in those situations, coming out and getting those three and outs.”
Now the team needs has to deal with adversity for the first time this season. The Wildcats went from being the hunters as a bottom feeder last year, to being the hunted as one of the top teams in the Big Ten this season. Fitzgerald’s bunch controls their own destiny and a second Big Ten Championship Game appearance in the last three years is still on the table.
Fitzgerald isn’t worried about his team rebounding because he believes the seniors will have everyone motivated. The 45-year old coach plans on continuing his aggressive play-calling. Anything to avoid the Wildcats from hanging their heads with another pivotal road match looming.
“We got great leadership, we’ve been in a lot of tight games, I think our guys are very confident.”