Saturday, November 26, 2011
Final: Michigan State 31, Northwestern 17
By Brian Bennett
We'll find out in a few hours whether Penn State or Wisconsin will represent the Leaders Division in the first Big Ten title game. We already know this: neither one of them will be too excited to play Michigan State.
The Spartans will come into Indianapolis next week on an absolute roll after beating Northwestern 31-17. They won their final four regular season games while scoring at least 31 points in all of them. Granted, there were some shaky defenses in that streak (Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern), but Michigan State still has a lot of confidence on offense to go with its consistently strong defense.
That defense didn't exactly shut down Northwestern, allowing 370 total yards. But it came up with key plays when it had to, including the first half forced fumble inside its own 5 and some major stops late after the Wildcats had trimmed the lead to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Kirk Cousins passed Jeff Smoker on the Michigan State record list for career touchdown passes, and not surprisingly he looked for his favorite target in the second half. B.J. Cunningham dropped an easy touchdown pass in the first half but had two scoring grabs in the second half, including the clinching one with 5:17 left as he bobbled and then secured the pass. Top Northwestern cornerback Jordan Mabin went out in the first half with a shoulder injury, and Michigan State took advantage.
The Spartans finish the regular season at 10-2, winning 10 games in back-to-back years for the first time in school history. Today's victory was impressive because Michigan State had nothing on the line, yet the team came up with a good effort to beat a Northwestern team that had been red hot.
The Wildcats finish 6-6 but should go bowling somewhere. After a 2-5 start to the season, that still rates as a success.
Michigan State has bigger things in its sights. And if the Spartans continue to play like this next week, they'll have a great shot at their first Rose Bowl since 1988 no matter who their opponent is.