Nov. 26, 2011
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Site: Evanston, Ill. (Ryan Field)
Score: #11/10 Michigan State 31, Northwestern 17
Records: NU (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten), Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten)
Next NU Event: Bowl game to be determined
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Key third-down conversions on offense proved to be the difference as No.11/10 Michigan State spoiled Senior Day at Ryan Field and escaped with a 31-17 win over Northwestern.
After both squads punted the ball away on their opening drives, the Spartans moved the ball down the field on the ground for the game's first scoring series. The 'Cats nearly got their defense off the field after six plays, but Cousins kept the drive alive with his feet on the strength of a 21-yard improvised run. Later in the drive, Le'Veon Bell tallied a 20-yard run for the Spartans that would eventually set up a 25-yard field goal off the foot of Dan Conroy to give MSU a 3-0 advantage.
The Wildcats quickly answered with a scoring drive of their own, however. Taking advantage of good starting field position, Northwestern chewed nearly five minutes off the clock and kicker Jeff Budzien booted a 34-yard field goal to even the score.
On the ensuing drive, Jeravin Matthews intercepted Cousins at Northwestern's 35-yard line and the offense looked to capitalize yet again. The Wildcats methodically moved the ball toward the end zone and looked to punch it in until Treyvon Green fumbled on Michigan State's three-yard line and the Spartans' Denzel Drone recovered the ball for the visitors.
Northwestern forced another third down on the next drive, this time at their own 32-yard line. However, Cousins found tight end Brian Linthicum over the middle for nine yards and a first down and on the very next play, the senior signal-caller hooked up with Keshawn Martin for a long 46-yard pass to the NU 7-yard line. Michigan State wasted little time as Bell scored the first touchdown of the contest for either side on the next play and the Spartans led, 10-3.
Martin provided another spark for his squad after the Spartan defense held the Wildcat offense to a three-and-out. The senior speedster fielded Brandon Williams' low, line-drive punt on a bounce and took off for the end zone resulting in a 17-3 lead that the Spartans would maintain at the half.
Northwestern made it a one-score game after opening the second-half scoring with a two-yard touchdown pass from Dan Persa to Jeremy Ebert. The highlight of the drive came when Persa found superback Drake Dunsmore wide-open down the seam and the fifth-year senior rumbled 69 yards down to the Michigan State three-yard line to set up the score.
The Spartans responded on the next drive, one that was keyed by another third-down conversion that resulted in another scoring play. On third-and-13, Cousins hooked up with Michigan State's all-time leader in receptions, B.J. Cunningham, for 33 yards to build the cushion back to 14 points.
Facing a fourth-and-six on MSU's 32-yard line, the familiar duo of Persa and Ebert gave the Ryan Field faithful something to cheer about as the quarterback found one of his top targets for 19 yards to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Demetrius Fields hauled in a 12-yard strike from Persa to pull his team back to within seven points, 24-17.
The TD pass marked the 32nd of Persa's career, good for fifth on NU's all-time list. He also finished the day with 4,968 career passing yards, leaving him 32 yards shy of becoming the eighth NU quarterback to top 5,000 for his tenure.
MSU grew its lead once again when another drive of more than 90 yards culminated in a second touchdown pass from Cousins to Cunningham and put Michigan. The scoring play capped a nine-play drive that took 5:05 and covered 93 yards.
Persa tried to lead the 'Cats to another memorable finish, but he was sacked three times on the final drive as the Michigan State defense worked to preserve the late lead.
For Northwestern, Persa was 23-of-32 for 245 yards a pair of touchdown tosses for the 'Cats. Ebert led the Wildcats with seven receptions and also topped the 1,000-yard plateau for the season, only the fourth time a Wildcat receiver has achieved that in a single season.
With six wins, the Wildcats are eligible for a bowl game for the fifth straight season and will now await word on a potential postseason destination. The Spartans will represent the Legends Division in next Saturday's inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
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