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Northwestern’s offense remains out of sync in loss to Michigan State

Quarterback Hunter Johnson completed 15-of-26 passes for 88 yards with an interception before being pulled in the fourth quarter.

Northwestern receiver Bennett Skowronek tries to catch a pass while being defended by Michigan State’s Josh Butler on Saturday in Evanston. Butler was called for pass interference.
Northwestern receiver Bennett Skowronek tries to catch a pass while being defended by Michigan State’s Josh Butler on Saturday in Evanston. Butler was called for pass interference.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern had its eight-game winning streak in Big Ten regular-season games snapped with a 31-10 loss to Michigan State on Saturday in Evanston. The Wildcats had won 15 of 16 regular-season conference games.

Quarterback Hunter Johnson completed 15 of 26 passes for 88 yards with an interception before being pulled in the fourth quarter.

Running back Drake Anderson had 86 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.

“Really disappointed in the outcome,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Like I told the guys in the locker room, I’ve had my nose bloodied before.

“Right now, offensively, it’s chicken-or-egg. Is it confidence or execution? Which one comes first? It’s gotta be a combination of both.”

The turning point came with just under two minutes left in the first half.

Trailing 7-3, Northwestern faced third-and-20 from its 48-yard line. Instead of playing it safe and punting to make Michigan State go the length of the field, Johnson forced a throw that was intercepted by Josiah Scott at the MSU 38.

The Spartans then put together an 11-play, 62-yard drive — capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Cody White — for a 14-3 halftime lead.

“That was big,” said Lewerke, who threw for three touchdowns. “I had a feeling we were gonna get the ball, but getting it on the 10-yard line versus the 30 or wherever Josiah picked it off is a big difference.”

For Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) to have any chance at repeating as Big Ten West champs, the offense must get turned around — and quickly. Johnson continues to struggle with consistency, and a very conservative game plan by the coaches isn’t helping him.

“We’re giving up too many explosive plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Not getting enough explosive plays. Not sustaining drives. We’re typically a complimentary team, and right now we’re not playing that way.

“It’s my fault. We’ve got to get it fixed, and we’re going to keep working at it.”

Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, Northwestern running back Isaiah Bower appeared to score on first-and-goal from the 7 but was ruled down a foot shy of the goal line. The Spartans’ defense then stuffed three consecutive runs to get the ball back.

“Huge stop,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s like a turnover to me.”

Lewerke completed 18 of 31 passes for 228 yards, Elijah Collins had 76 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and tight end Matt Seybert had two touchdown catches as Michigan State (3-1, 1-0) snapped a three-game losing streak against Northwestern.

“I was very impressed with our workman-like attitude today,” Dantonio said. “If something negative happened, we just lined up and played.”

The Spartans also bounced back from a stunning 10-7 loss to Arizona State last week, when an apparent game-tying field goal was negated by a penalty.

“We talked about last week, refocusing and getting back down to business, and that’s what we did,” said linebacker Joe Bachie, who had 13 solo tackles and an interception.

The win was the 110th for Dantonio at Michigan State, making him the winningest coach in program history. Dantonio, who had been tied with Duffy Daugherty, is 110-52 in 13 seasons.

“I think those are things you sit back at a later date and say, ‘OK, did this, did that,’ ” Dantonio said. “It’s not an individual thing. There’s just so many people working toward it.”