(Saturday, October 23rd)
Final Score: (8) Michigan State 35, Northwestern 27
Evanston, IL (Sports Network) - B.J. Cunningham hauled in a deflected pass for the go-ahead touchdown with two minutes remaining, as eighth-ranked Michigan State rallied to beat Northwestern, 35-27, at Ryan Field.
Kirk Cousins converted 29-of-43 throws for 329 yards and three touchdowns for the Spartans (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten), who overcame a 17-0 first-half deficit to win in head coach Mark Dantonio's return to the sideline for the first time he suffered a mild heart attack hours after the September 18 game against Notre Dame.
"I wouldn't go out if I didn't think my health was good," Dantonio said.
Michigan State, which played outside its home state for the first time this season, is off to its best start in 44 years when the program opened 9-0.
Dan Persa ran for three touchdowns for the Wildcats (5-2, 1-2), who were idle last weekend after suffering a home loss to Purdue the previous week. Persa completed 18-of-29 passes for 187 yards and his final attempt was intercepted by MSU's Eric Gordon, ending any chance of a Northwestern comeback.
Down by 10 points, Michigan State put together a drive that stretched into the fourth quarter and featured a fake punt on 4th-and-11 from the Northwestern 36. Aaron Bates took the direct snap and found Bennie Fowler for a 23-yard completion, then Cousins and Mark Dell hooked up for a 13-yard TD on the next play.
The Wildcats countered with a 41-yard field goal from Stefan Demos to push the lead to 27-21 with 9:47 left.
Michigan State went three-and-out on its next drive, but the Spartans defense forced a punt by Northwestern. Starting from their own 12-yard line, Cousins took MSU down the field, converting a 4th-and-1 with a short toss to Charlie Gantt along the way.
Following the successful conversion on fourth down, Cousins hit Edwin Baker for a 13-yard gain to the Northwestern nine before Cunningham's juggling catch in the back of the end zone.
Baker added a 25-yard TD run with 1:07 left after the Wildcats had turned the ball over on downs, and Persa was picked off by Gordon near midfield in the final minute.
"We had every opportunity to win that football game and we've got to find a way to make some plays down the stretch against good football teams. That's what it came down to," said Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Northwestern converted three first downs on its second possession of the game, and Persa opened the scoring with a three-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw up the middle.
Michigan State drove near midfield on the ensuing series, but Northwestern defensive back Justan Vaughn recovered a Baker fumble at the Wildcats' 47-yard line.
Northwestern marched to the Michigan State one in three plays and looked to added to its lead. But the promising drive was derailed when Jacob Schmidt fumbled before reaching the goal line. Spartans cornerback Johnny Adams wound up recovering at the two.
The Wildcats got the ball back after a punt and Demos kicked a 37-yarder to make it 10-0 early in the second quarter.
Michigan State drove deep into Northwestern territory on the next series before stalling at the 21. The Spartans came away with no points after Dan Conroy failed to connect on a 38-yard field goal, his first miss in 14 tries this season.
The Wildcats then put together a seven-play, 79-yard drive, extending their advantage to 17-0 on Persa's one-yard plunge. A seven-yard TD pass from Cousins to Dell put Michigan State on the board with 2:49 left in the first half.
The Spartans' momentum carried over into the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out defensively, the visitors got the ball back at the Northwestern 48 following a short punt. Cousins completed consecutive passes to Cunningham to move the ball to the 22. Fowler ran to the end zone on the next play, trimming MSU's deficit to three.
Another quick series and punt by the Wildcats resulted in excellent field position for the Spartans. Beginning at his own 42, Cousins hit Dell for a 10- yard gain on first down, but Michigan State got only as far as the 44 before punting the ball back to Northwestern.
The Wildcats then orchestrated a 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Persa scrambling for a six-yard touchdown.
Baker carried the ball 10 times for 73 yards...Cunningham had 113 yards on eight receptions and Dell caught nine passes for 107 yards...Persa rushed for 46 yards...Michigan State has won the last three meetings and leads the all-time series 35-16...The Spartans will visit Iowa next Saturday, while Northwestern will travel to Indiana to take on the Hoosiers.
10/23 18:40:58 ET