Northwestern's College Football Playoff hopes doomed after upset loss to Michigan State

Sam Cooper
·3 min read

Northwestern’s time as a College Football Playoff contender was short-lived.

The Wildcats entered Saturday’s game vs. Michigan State with a 5-0 record and ranked No. 8 in the CFP rankings after a triumphant win over Wisconsin last weekend. But Northwestern is set to plummet from the top 10 after being upset by the Spartans 29-20 in East Lansing.

Michigan State jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, but Northwestern managed to climb all the way back to take a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead. But after taking the lead, the Wildcats were doomed by two turnovers.

First, on the play that immediately followed an MSU interception, Northwestern’s Kyric McGowan mishandled a handoff on a reverse to fumble the ball right back to the Spartans near midfield. That mishap set up a 44-yard Matt Coghlin field goal to tie the score at 20-20.

Later in the fourth, with the score still tied 20-20, Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey was intercepted by MSU’s Shakur Brown. Like the fumble, the interception gave MSU’s struggling offense the ball near midfield.

And the Spartans could only muster 19 yards after the interception, but it was enough for Coghlin to give his team the lead. This time, it was a low knuckleball through the wind from 48 yards out to put the Spartans ahead 23-20 with 3:35 to go.

Northwestern’s ensuing drive went nowhere, and Pat Fitzgerald opted to punt the ball back to MSU knowing he had three timeouts in his pocket. If Northwestern’s defense could force a three-and-out, the offense would have another chance with plenty of time on the clock.

Rocky Lombardi had other ideas. Lombardi has been turnover prone this year, but the MSU quarterback made a big play with his legs when it mattered. On third-and-8, Lombardi kept on a read option and sprinted 10 yards for a pivotal first down. The first down allowed the MSU offense to drain most of the remaining time of the clock.

Northwestern eventually got the ball back with just 25 seconds remaining, and its drive went nowhere. The final play of the game actually ended with a Michigan State defensive touchdown to put a bow on the upset victory.

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 28: Rocky Lombardi #12 of the Michigan State Spartans scrambles against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second quarter at Spartan Stadium on November 28, 2020 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi threw for 167 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 65 yards in the win over Northwestern. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

What does this mean for Northwestern?

Northwestern is still in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West thanks to wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue, but the Wildcats were pretty firmly in the College Football Playoff conversation entering the weekend. Now they won’t be.

Last week, Northwestern’s defense smothered the Wisconsin offense, allowing only seven points. This week, against a much worse offense, the defense was sluggish in the first half.

Lombardi hit Jalen Nailor for a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter and later MSU embarked on an 85-yard drive to increase its lead to 17-0. That’s a tough hill to climb, and Northwestern was able to climb when it took a 20-17 lead.

Northwestern’s offense has lacked explosiveness and had some turnover issues so far this year, but the defense has forced multiple turnovers of its own. Against MSU, the 4-to-1 turnover disparity was too much to overcome in the end. Northwestern’s two fourth-quarter turnovers ultimately proved to be the difference, as they directly set up Michigan State’s final six points.

Northwestern still has a clear path to the Big Ten title game, but a realistic CFP resume is going to be hard to assemble without an undefeated record. The Big Ten’s shortened season already put it behind, and now COVID-19 issues throughout the league are wreaking havoc.

There was no margin for error for Northwestern.

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