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MSU punt trickery fools Northwestern

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Michigan State's Aaron Bates heaves a pass on a fake punt that went for 23 yards and set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.

It was all there in front of Northwestern. The chance to beat a highly ranked, undefeated team. The opportunity to wipe away the pain of losing to middling Purdue two weeks before. The pride in being bowl-eligible so early in the season.

Maybe that was the problem as Michigan State lined up for a punt in the fourth quarter Saturday. The Wildcats were looking at all the possibilities ahead instead of the blatantly obvious in front of them.

And when that fake punt came, when that wounded duck of a pass wobbled into the wind at Ryan Field, it appeared as if the Cats were the only ones in the stadium who didn't see it coming.

But that was impossible. Michigan State had taken a delay-of-game penalty the previous play, which is football code for, "We need more time to discuss the fake punt we're about to spring on our unsuspecting opponent.''

A gutsy fake field goal had fueled the Spartans' overtime victory over Notre Dame earlier in the season. The mild heart attack Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had suffered after the game had further nudged the day toward unforgettable.

So Northwestern had to be ready for the possibility of trickery, deceit and all-around chicanery on fourth-and-11 from its own 36-yard line, correct-

''I wasn't really thinking [fake] punt,'' said NU cornerback Jordan Mabin, who was lined up against the Spartans' Bennie Fowler.

''We certainly had our antennas up,'' linebacker Bryce McNaul said.

''We talked all week that there was going to be a fake punt where they're probably going to throw it, but did we expect that fake punt- No,'' coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Confused- Get in line with the Cats.

Mousetrap catches NU

So here came the fake like an on-time arrival, with punter Aaron Bates throwing a shaky pass to Fowler for 23 yards and a first down.

What was it former NU coach Ara Parseghian had told the Wildcats the day before- Something about being focused for all 60 minutes of a football game-

''It was a mousetrap,'' Dantonio said of the fake after his team's 35-27 victory. ''We had to get them to take the cheese.''

It led to a touchdown on the next play, and whatever momentum the Cats had before the play was gone. The 10-point lead they had carried into the fourth quarter was now a 24-21 NU lead that didn't seem like a lead at all.

What you saw Saturday with Northwestern is what you got: a gritty team without scads of talent. It was a wonderfully entertaining game in which the team with the better athletes prevailed. Maybe that's what makes it so painful for the Wildcats: They still had the lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Brains appeared to be on their way to beating brawn.

And then brainlock set in on that fake punt.

There is no shame in losing to the Spartans, especially in a close game. Afterward, NU players weren't in the mood to discuss the gradations of pain they've felt in their last two losses. If the Purdue loss was an amputation, what was this one-

They both hurt -- the Purdue game for its senselessness and the Michigan State game for its self-infliction.

Mirror time

''Guys are going to have to swallow a pretty heavy pill,'' Fitzgerald said. ''You look at yourself in the mirror, me included. Did I do the right things to get the guys ready to go- Did I say the right things at halftime- ''

A few lapses in concentration did in Northwestern on Saturday. You can't fumble at the opponent's 1-yard line, as Jacob Schmidt did in the first quarter. A touchdown would have given the Wildcats a 14-0 lead. You can't get dumb penalties. You can't be blind to the possibility of a fake punt.

You can't do any of that against a ranked team and expect to avoid a reckoning.

The Cats played soft in pass coverage Saturday, which helps explain how Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins was 29-for-43 for 329 yards and two touchdowns. NU's strategy was sound: Stop running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. But nothing in that approach says to give receivers enough room to park a stretch limo.

It was too bad because it wiped out another tough performance by Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, who rushed for three touchdowns. He's as tough as they come, but if he continues to get hit the way he was Saturday, he's not going to last. It won't be long before he's referred to as Persa-cuted in headlines.

The sideshow going into the game was the exact location of Dantonio. Would he be on the field for the first time since his heart attack Sept. 18, or would he be coaching from the press box again- It was sort of a ''Where's Waldo- '' if Waldo wore a headset. Dantonio coached from the sideline. It seemed to work.

There was no cheese left.