Tougher to choose winners and losers this week, because there were so many up-and-down performances in an up-and-down game. So, fewer recipients than usual this time around. On we go:
The entire receiving corps. Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol, Bennie Fowler, and Charlie Gantt. Each of them made absolutely critical plays in the game.
- Dell had two touchdown catches to keep MSU in the game, including a more-difficult-than-it-looked catch on Cousins' fastball for the second touchdown.
- Cunningham had the catch of the year to give MSU the lead, and six of his other seven catches went for first downs.
- Keith Nichol made two enormous catches in long yard situations during the go-ahead 4th quarter drive: 18 yards on 2nd-and-20, and 14 yards on 3rd-and-15.
- Bennie Fowler did a fantastic job filling in for Keshawn Martin, and was a critical actor in two of the game's biggest plays: the 3rd quarter end around touchdown, and, of course, the 4th quarter fake punt reception.
- Charlie Gantt made a nice catch in traffic to convert a critical fourth down on the go-ahead drive.
Remarkable play from an incredibly deep position group. Biggies to all.
Tyler Hoover. MSU's best defensive player two weeks in a row. Hoover led the team in tackles, had two sacks, and was a general menace to Dan Persa throughout the second half. Oh, and made perhaps the biggest play in the game by forcing a fumble at the MSU one yard line. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his performance, and deservedly so; he'll have to come up huge again this Saturday.
Kirk Cousins. Had some first half struggles, which can mostly be attributed to the nasty weather and poor pass protection from the offensive line. But in the second half, he was unstoppable, and his final statistics are eye-popping: 29-43 for 331 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Cousins went 7-8 for 98 yards (!) on the go-ahead drive. Cousins is becoming one of the best quarterbacks in school history right before our eyes.
Mark Dantonio. The gutsy fake punt call on fourth down seemed remarkable at the time, but is even more impressive after learning the backstory:
As it turned out, MSU was baiting the trap with its whole fourth-down charade. The Spartans had noticed on tape that NU junior cornerback Jordan Mabin, when he guarded gunners in "safe punt" situations, would chuck his man for about 10-15 yards and then peel toward the sideline to avoid having the coffin-corner punt bounce off him. [ . . . ]
Just as the Spartans figured, Mabin chucked Fowler for several yards and then headed toward the sideline to avoid disaster. That explains why Mabin couldn't find the ball and went in a circle as Bates lobbed a pass downfield to Fowler for a 21-yard gain and first down.
That is indisputably faaantastic. Dantonio also gets tons of credit in my book for leading a team that, when confronted with a major deficit for the first time this season, stayed calm, chipped away, and ultimately came up with all the answers. This is national coach of the year-type stuff.
Slappies, after the jump.
Dan Conr--ha, just kidding. The 100% record wasn't going to last forever. No worries.
The offensive line. This one's real, unfortunately. For the second consecutive week, MSU was unable to establish any kind of running game in the first half because there were absolutely no holes for our running backs to run through. That's sort of understandable against Illinois, which has a very good defensive line. While Northwestern's run defense was ranked decently high going into Saturday's game (48th nationally), every Northwestern blogger I spoke to last week (all 2 of them!) was scared that MSU's rushing attack was going to grind the Wildcats into oblivion. That obviously didn't happen. MSU hasn't had a bye week yet, and it may be that the o-line is simply banged up. But this week presents the season's biggest test, and a wildly improved effort will be necessary to pass.
As always, award your own Biggies and Slappies (or something in-between) in the comments.