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Spartan Football Playback: Michigan State vs. Northwestern (2006)

Ahead of Friday’s opening week matchup between Michigan State and Northwestern in Evanston, we look back on the greatest comeback in college football history.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats

Date: Oct. 21, 2006

Location: Ryan Field - Evanston, Illinois

Final Score: 41-38 MSU

All-time Matchup Record: Michigan State leads 39-20

(note the lead image for this article is from 2005, as there were no photos available in our database from 2006).

If you’re a Michigan State fan old enough to remember watching the matchup between Michigan State and Northwestern in 2006, you probably turned it off at some point during the game — and no one would have blamed you.

Unfortunately, those who did missed one of the more remarkable feats ever accomplished in a football game.

Not only did Michigan State pull of the largest comeback in NCAA history, but the Spartans did it all with less than 25 minutes remaining in the game. In what was mostly a forgettable season for both teams, this game produced one of the program’s most unforgettable moments.

The matchup represented the highlight (and maybe lone bright spot) of the Spartans’ 2006 campaign, as both teams entered the day coming off consecutive losses and virtually no hope in competing for a Big Ten title. Michigan State would finish 1-7 in conference play and 4-8 overall that season.

This season came toward the beginning of a new era for each program, as Pat Fitzgerald entered his first season as head coach in Evanston (and is now in 16th season at NU entering 2021) and John L. Smith coached his last year for Michigan State, eventually giving way to Mark Dantonio.

Game Recap

The Spartans struck first on the opening drive of the game that ended with a 32-yard field goal from freshman kicker, Brett Swenson. Michigan State would not sniff another point again until the third quarter, however, this kick proved to be pivotal.

Northwestern went up 7-3 at the end of the first quarter when quarterback C.J Bachér found Ross Lane for a five-yard touchdown. The Wildcats continued to push in the second quarter, reeling off 24-straight points as Michigan State punted three times and fumbled once. The Wildcats would head into halftime with a 24-3 lead.

When the second half began, the Spartans’ struggles continued as the Wildcats took advantage. Bachér tossed two touchdowns on consecutive drives, giving NU a commanding 38-3 lead.

While most spectators turned the game off to blow off some steam or find more competitive action, the Spartans began a historical offensive onslaught with a little under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

The comeback began with a nine-play, 65-yard drive that was capped off with an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Stanton to running back Jehuu Caulcrick. A four-yard touchdown run from A.J. Jimmerson and goal line interception from linebacker Kaleb Thornhill gave the Spartans a fighting chance entering the final quarter, as NU led 38-17.

Stanton threw an interception early in the fourth quarter and appeared to swing the momentum back to the Wildcats, but a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by Ashton Anderson on the next possession made it a game with 11:22 remaining.

Michigan State capitalized on back-to-back Northwestern punts with heroic touchdown plays by Stanton that tied the game at 38. With 3:43 left in the fourth quarter, all momentum shifted to the Green and White.

On the next possession for Northwestern, Bachér would throw a costly interception that gave MSU great field position. The Spartans ran the ball for the duration of the drive, advancing the ball to NU’s 11-yard-line with just 18 seconds left. Swenson hit a 28-yard field goal to give the Spartans the lead and a win for the ages.

In what seemed improbable, it was a victory for MSU, and remains the largest comeback in NCAA FBS history to this day.