Clayton Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns and Northwestern recovered from another second-half slip to beat No. 20 Michigan State 29-19 on Saturday.
The Spartans (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) entered with the nation's top-ranked run defense and held Northwestern (2-3, 2-1) to 8 yards on the ground, but it didn't matter. The Wildcats moved the ball consistently well through the air, and Michigan State's offense was mostly inept except for a brief stretch in the third quarter.
Thorson threw a 21-yard scoring pass to Cameron Green with 15 seconds left in the third, and a 2-point conversion gave Northwestern a 22-19 lead.
The Wildcats missed a field goal with 6:41 to play, but Michigan State went 15 yards backward on the ensuing possession and had to punt. The Spartans held again defensively, and on the next possession, they had second-and-1 from their own 11. After two near-sacks, running back Connor Heyward was stopped on fourth down. Thorson scored on a 2-yard run to make it a 10-point game with 2:51 left.
"We'll find the answers. I feel pretty confident in that," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "We'll right the ship."
The Spartans took advantage of a first-quarter interception and led 3-0, but Thorson connected with Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left in the period. Thorson found JJ Jefferson for a 34-yard TD in the second, and Northwestern led 14-6 at halftime.
The Wildcats blew a 21-3 halftime lead in a loss to Akron and were up 17-0 in the first half in last weekend's loss to Michigan. They also gave away the lead against Michigan State in a quick sequence during the third quarter.
Felton Davis scored for the Spartans on a 48-yard reverse, and although a 2-point conversion attempt failed, Michigan State got the ball back on an interception and took a 19-14 lead on Brian Lewerke's 3-yard touchdown pass to Davis.
Northwestern recovered, however, and won on a day when the Wildcats clearly looked like the better team.
"We lost some momentum there in the third quarter and we were able to seize it back," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We've been really close the last three weeks and to come in here against an outstanding football team and get the win, I'm incredibly proud of our guys."