Wildcats win the right way

Northwestern sprinted off the field to celebrate a key road victory over Michigan State. It was the fitting ending. The Wildcats won the way they should each game, swinging momentum in their favor.

On Saturday, Michigan State imploded. So much talent, so little to show for it. The Spartans suffered from ill-timed penalties, ugly turnovers and what seemed like a dozen dropped passes.

It became remarkably easy to see how a team that entered with preseason hype fell by the wayside. MSU needs a win at Minnesota to even make a bowl. I turned to another writer after the game and asked, "They can do that, right?" I'm unsure. It's been that type of season for Sparty.

But today, in the end, was about Northwestern. No one handed the Wildcats the game in a tough, angst-ridden environment at East Lansing. They earned it the way NU teams should – with discipline, hustle and heart. You name the intangible. NU played with it.

It was quite the response to a heartbreaking loss at Michigan. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said that this week's game started when the team returned home from Ann Arbor.

His players – with one more opportunity for a significant regular season victory – won the battle between the ears. The Wildcats know nothing of letdown games; today was just another opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.

Fitzgerald regularly preaches the importance of winning the turnover margin, and in that department, NU excelled on Saturday. It required a collective effort. While slightly inconsistent, the pass rush still pressured MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell into several errant throws. When he erred, they capitalized. Fifth-year senior David Nwabuisi returned an interception for a touchdown, the first of his career. Jared Carpenter continued his stunning improvement with a pick of his own.

It was from an imperfect performance. Kain Colter will look over the film and wonder what caused the first-quarter safety and ensuing momentum swing. The offense stalled at times and somehow only accrued 57 rushing yards. The defense looked porous at others. The win started with the turnovers. The Spartans had four and the Cats had none. And that's how the Cats should win ball games.

This very drive, effort and focus carried over to the later stages of the game. As is natural, a Northwestern football game was close in the final minutes. The Cats wanted this one. They could not let another one slip away.

With Venric Mark and Kain Colter sidelined, offensive coordinator Mick McCall communicated with Siemian over the phone with the Cats leading 23-20 and about to take the ball. The message: "Let's do it."

Rather than falling victim to the same conservative style they employed in past losses, McCall – in one of his finest coaching jobs this season – went for the jugular. Instead of trying to kill the clock, he felt confident in letting Siemian throw the ball for first downs.

The Spartans were unprepared for the late-game passing strategy. They were called for a costly pass interference penalty at the beginning of the drive. The fans were up in arms, but honestly, it was a reasonable whistle. Then, Siemian found Christian Jones down the middle for 22 yards, backing up MSU even more as time ticked down.

This, too, had its flaws. After an incompletion, on third-and-five, Siemian came up just short in an effort to scramble for the first. They failed to close it out, but the fearless play calling certainly helped the cause. The coaching staff seemed to finally come to terms with their confidence in players. They played to win and not to hold off a loss, even when the latter would have made sense after so many tough defeats. The iron will remained a constant, and that's how the Cats should win ball games.

If you tuned in to watch NU for the first time during the final drive, you would have thought you were witnessing a top-10 defense. Suddenly, everything clicked. The secondary swarmed to receivers and caused four consecutive incompletions.

On his last chance, a fourth-and-10, Maxwell threw a strike to Dion Sims over the middle. But Jared Carpenter would not let him have it. The scrappy senior exemplified the hard-nosed play Northwestern played with throughout the afternoon. He kept trying to pry the ball loose, and succeeded. The pass was ruled incomplete. Regardless, the game was over.

I could rant about how close to perfect the safeties were today. That's not really the point, though. When Michigan State looked lost, and when the game hung in the balance, NU held it together.

Instead of feeling disgruntled, NU fans could leave inspired.

Even after a lackluster contest by most standards, the Cats were so damn happy to steal a win. As Dan Vitale said so concisely: "We released a lot of demons this game."

Afterwards, the Cats sprinted over to the fans and chanted the fight song with extra enthusiasm. At that point, it was easy to forget how the win came about.

It all felt exactly how it should be.

Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline