I have been coming across a lot of older games that seem completely outlandish nowadays. Now, it would be easy to cherry pick games from the 50s and say things like “Can you believe the University of Chicago has more Big 10 championships than Indiana and Penn State combined”. My goal is to do these in a recent enough time where you sit back, scratch your head, and wonder how you might have forgotten this event.
The Lead Up
First, we need to shift our frame of reference. In 2006, Sparty was not quite what they are now. This was the final season for head coach John Smith who had seen falling win totals every year he was at Michigan State. This season, he had started with a three-game winning streak (albeit two of those were Idaho and Eastern Michigan) that was quickly followed up by a gut-wrenching four game losing streak against main rivals Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State along with Illinois. Hoping to save some face, Sparty rolled into Evanston, Illinois, to face Northwestern.
Northwestern had not been a dominant program since their powerhouse days of Pappy Waldorf, Robert Voigts, and Ara Parseghian (1930s through 1950s for those of you who haven’t done a deep dive on Northwestern’s Football Reference site like I did this morning). They had seen sparse recent success in the 90s with a Rose Bowl run, but nothing seemed to be sustaining. In 2005, Randy Walker had brought them to a 7-5 record and spent some time in the Top 25. Unfortunately, Randy Walker passed away suddenly on June 29, 2006, leaving the Northwestern community stunned and forcing Pat Fitzgerald to step into the head coaching role. The fact that Northwestern had been 2-5 at that point is a nod to the strength exhibited by the program.
So, what happened?
Michigan State was able to convert a field goal five minutes into the first quarter. Northwestern took over at that point and put together 38 unanswered points over the next 30 minutes, capping it off with a touchdown five minutes into the third quarter that was set up by a Drew Stanton interception. On the ensuing drive, Michigan State put together a 65-yard drive to score a touchdown, snapping Northwestern’s run. Sparty forced the Wildcats to punt and again drove down the field to score a touchdown, 38-17. Northwestern drove down the field after that until they were intercepted at the goal line by Michigan State’s Kaleb Thornhill.
Down three scores, Michigan State started the fourth quarter with another Drew Stanton interception. Just when Michigan State appeared to be down and out, they blocked a Northwestern punt and returned it for a touchdown. With the score 38-24, the Spartans were able to turn drives into touchdowns on their next two possessions to tie the game. They followed this up by intercepting Northwestern’s pass at NW’s 40 yard line. Running out the clock with a series of runs, Michigan State was able to hit the 28-yard field goal to seal the largest comeback in NCAA D1-A history.
Neither program had a successful season, but the atmospheres around each program were vastly different. MSU’s John Smith was fired after the season to make way for a successful but vastly unproven Mark Dantonio. Northwestern stuck with Pat Fitzgerald. Both moves have brought different levels of success to the two programs, but it is nigh impossible to argue against the decisions.