EAST LANSING, Mich.-No matter what head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his players say, there had to be a sense of déjà vu when Michigan State took over possession at its own 20-yard line with 1:29 left and Northwestern leading 23-20.
Somewhere on that sideline, more than one Wildcat had to be thinking: "Oh no, here we go again."
After all, this was a team that just last week blew a three-point lead with 18 seconds left. That had twice before that blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads to turn certain victory into agonizing defeat.
But this time, the Wildcats defense rose to the occasion. This time, with the game hanging in the balance, it was Northwestern's defense that came up with the pass breakups when it mattered most.
And, finally, on fourth down, Maxwell's pass to Dion Sims was broken up by Carpenter.
Four times Spartan receivers managed to get their hands on the ball, and four times Northwestern defenders were there to knock it out. On the last play, Carpenter tried to "Peanut Tillman" Sims, who appeared to catch the ball before Carpenter was able to eventually knock it out of his hands.
"I kept punching and punching and was trying to get it out," said an Carpenter, who also contributed nine tackles and an interception. "Incomplete catch, fumble," it didn't matter; it was fourth down, so he knew that once that ball hit the ground the game was over.
Nwabuisi, who recorded his first career touchdown with a 43-yard pick-six of Maxwell in the third quarter, was elated to see the ball come loose from Sims' grasp and harmlessly fall to the Spartan Stadium turf.
"I didn't think it was going to come out, but he [Carpenter] kept fighting and fighting for it, and it finally came out," he said.
And what did it mean to him? "We finally got a win over Michigan State (a team that the seniors had never beaten) and put Michigan behind us."
It's probably no coincidence that the three players that broke up those final four passes were seniors, a group that Fitzgerald credited for getting the team to flush any lingering effects of what could have been a devastating 38-31 overtime loss to Michigan last Saturday.
"The guys responded when we got back off the bus a week ago from Ann Arbor," said Fitzgerald. "That's when this game started."
And it ended with four straight Maxwell incompletions.
Perhaps Saturday's final sequence was a fitting end to a game in which the hard luck Cats were finally able to get their fourth-quarter monkey off their backs. In three previous games, when faced with similar fourth-quarter situations -- against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan -- Northwestern had come up short. But each time they bounced back to post wins the following week.
Just like Carpenter, they kept punching and they kept fighting. And against Michigan State on Saturday, they were finally rewarded.
Making a stand: Carpenter and Nwabuisi said that Northwestern's heroic goal-line stand in the second quarter gave the unit a lot of confidence going into crunch time. After getting a first down at the Northwestern 8-yard line, Michigan State ran Le'Veon Bell at the Wildcats four straight times, yet the 245-pounder couldn't not bull his way into the end zone. He gained five yards on first down and three on second, but after that, two straight shots from the one yielded nothing. Traveon Henry made the stop on third down and Drew Smith and Ibraheim Campbell got credit for stoning him on fourth down. "Goal line stands like that are huge in the game," said Carpenter. "We took points off the board."
Super superbacks: Freshman superback Dan Vitale had the game of his young career against MSU, with a game-high nine catches for 110 yards, including a 41-yard catch. Seldom used Tim Riley also caught a 6-yard touchdown pass. Vitale said that coaches thought they could exploit matchups against the Spartans with superbacks, but that it also represented his evolution as a player. "It changes from week to week, but I think I'm starting to prove myself," he said. "It's been a fun ride and I'm ready for these last two (games)."
Dinged up: Northwestern's offensive battery of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark both sustained injuries which prevented them from playing down the stretch. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian closed the game out for Northwestern because of Colter's injury. "He was a little bit dinged up and we made a decision to go with Trevor," said Fitzgerald. Northwestern's head coach didn't have an update on either player's condition, but, for what it's worth, he reported that both Colter and Mark told him after the game that they would be able to play next week.