Nov. 26, 2011
EVANSTON, Ill. -- All week long Michigan State vowed to look straight ahead at Northwestern instead of a week down the road to the Big Ten championship game.
The Spartans were true to their word, beating Northwestern 31-17 on Saturday in a competitive tuneup.
With a spot in next Saturday's title game secured, Michigan State wasn't about to coast in the regular season finale.
Michigan State (10-2, 7-1) wanted 10 wins and even though the Spartans had already clinched the Legends Division by virtue of a tiebreaker over Michigan, they wanted to ensure the best record in their division.
All of it was accomplished on a drizzly day at Ryan Field.
"We wanted to have momentum going into next week," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "We'll have that."
Keshawn Martin returned a punt 57 yards for a TD just before half, Kirk Cousins became the school's career TD pass leader with two more and Michigan State's league-best defense came up with six sacks.
"We're 60 minutes from the Rose Bowl," Cousins said, now afforded the opportunity to project a matchup with Penn State or Wisconsin.
"We had a very challenging schedule and we felt like it was as tough as anybody's in the conference, so the fact we could win 10 and only lose one (conference) game ... says a lot about what we can accomplish here."
Cousins threw a 33-yard TD to B.J. Cunningham in the third quarter and hit him again on a juggling 29-yard TD pass with 5:17 left to complete a 93-yard drive. It was the 62nd career touchdown pass for Cousins, breaking the school record held by Jeff Smoker (61).
"None of those touchdowns I threw by myself -- I passed to someone, I had an offensive lineman protecting me," said Cousins, who is 21-4 as starter the last two seasons. "Any individual records are a testament to the team and the more records we can pile up shows how special the team has been."
Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) had its four-game winning streak snapped in the regular-season finale and now hopes for a bowl bid. The Wildcats closed to 24-17 early in the final quarter on Dan Persa's 12-yard TD pass to Demetrius Fields, set up by a clutch fourth-down pass from Persa to Jeremy Ebert.
The Wildcats got the ball back at the MSU 47, but a holding penalty and Jerel Worthy's sack of Persa forced a punt and then MSU went on its long, game-clinching drive.
"It's tough," Persa said. "We had high expectations coming into the season."
Cousins completed 14 of 20 for 214 yards and Cunningham had six catches for 120 yards. Persa completed 23 of 32 for 245 yards and two TDs.
Michigan State scored two touchdowns in the final 1:40 of the second quarter, including Martin's punt return, and took a 17-3 lead at the intermission.
Instead of being ahead, all of a sudden Northwestern was behind by two touchdowns.
"It drives me crazy when we don't win and it drives me up a wall," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I expect to win and I expect to win everything we do. To not do that six times this year is disappointing."
With the score tied at 3-3, Northwestern was driving when Treyvon Green fumbled after a hit by Max Bullough and Michigan State's Denzel Drone recovered at the Spartan 3 with just more than five minutes left in the half. Northwestern called a timeout -- presumably to have the play reviewed -- but Michigan State retained possession.
MSU then took off on a 97-yard drive -- Cousins hit Brian Linthicum for 15 yards and heaved a 46-yarder to Martin that carried to the NU 7. Le'Veon Bell then carried the final 7 yards for a TD, completing an eight-play march that put the Spartans up 10-3.
The Spartans defense then forced a Northwestern punt and Martin fielded Brandon Williams' boot, broke to his right, signaled to blockers and sailed in for a 17-3 lead. The two TDs came just 66 seconds apart.
"I wasn't able to catch it, but the bounce was good," Martin said. "As soon as I caught it, I saw a little seam to the right. I went up the field a little bit and broke it to the right and after that it was just trusting my speed.
"It was great blocking on that return. It was a great return at a good time."
Northwestern responded quickly once the second half began.
The Wildcats' Drake Dunsmore got wide open on a blown coverage, hauled in a Persa pass and raced downfield on a 69-yard play before he knocked out at the 3. One play later, Persa flipped a 2-yard TD to Ebert and two minutes into the third quarter, Northwestern was back in the game at 17-10.
But Cousins had a third-down keeper of 8 yards for a first down to keep the Spartans moving. And then on a third-and-13 he rolled out and avoided the rush before making a beautiful throw to Cunningham for a 33-yard TD that made it 24-10.
Northwestern lost senior defensive back Jordan Mabin to a right shoulder injury in the first quarter and it was a costly injured against the Spartans' talented passing attack.