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Northwestern vs. Michigan State 2012: Defense and true freshman lead the way for Wildcats

The Northwestern defense forced four turnovers and true freshman tight end Dan Vitale played the best game of his young career as the Wildcats edged out the Spartans, 23-20.

Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

Northwestern pulled out a hard-fought 23-20 victory against the Michigan St. Spartans Saturday behind the effort of a ball-hawking defense and a true freshman tight end.

The Northwestern defense allowed 419 total yards, but forced four turnovers, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, to limit the Spartans offense. The defense also scored six points of its own on a interception return for a touchdown early in the second half.

Freshman tight end Dan Vitale played the best game of his young career, catching nine passes for 110 yards, including a 41-yard reception on the Wildcats' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

SB Nation's Northwestern Wildcats blog, Sippin' On Purple, praised both the defense and Vitale as they turned out to be the differences in a back-and-forth game.

The defense allowed Andrew Maxwell to throw for 297 yards, but it kept LeVeon Bell mostly in check and made some critical red zone stops and a fourth down stop to clinch the game along with those turnovers.

The offense had some issues, giving up a safety and converting only 3 of 14 third downs. The main bright spot was Dan Vitale's breakout game.

The win moves Northwestern to 8-3 on the season and 4-3 in the Big Ten. They host the struggling Illinois Fighting Illini next Saturday with a chance to increase their bowl game resume.