With the winningest quarterback in school history, Connor Cook, graduating after last season, the Michigan State Spartans were expected to take a step back or two, possibly falling from the top tier of the Big Ten.
But sitting at 2-3 and 0-2 in the Big Ten so far through the first six weeks of the season, the Spartans have been much worse than expected, and the ‘Cats will have a chance to come out of East Lansing with their second consecutive road win.
Michigan State has won five of the last six meetings versus the Wildcats, including a 30-6 drubbing at Ryan Field in 2013 in their last matchup, and the Spartans lead the all-time series 37-17. But the last time Northwestern traveled to East Lansing, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad topped Michigan State, 23-20.
Sparty opened their season with wins against Furman and Notre Dame, looking like they could possibly challenge the likes of Michigan and Ohio State. But things quickly fell apart from there as they’ve lost three straight for the first time under head coach Mark Dantonio.
Over the past three games, the once-vaunted Michigan State defense has struggled, giving up over 300 yards of offense to Wisconsin, Indiana and BYU. The Spartans defense is headlined by future first round pick Malik McDowell, who anchors a solid defensive line.
Riley Bullough captains the Spartans’ defense from the MIKE linebacker position, but he’s missed the past three games with a shoulder injury, and his status is once again an unknown this weekend against in the ‘Cats.
The Spartans’ have been gashed by the Badgers, Hoosiers and Cougars in recent weeks, and if Northwestern can find Justin Jackson some running room, the Wildcats could open up the offense at Spartan Stadium, and eventually find Clayton Thorson some holes in the secondary as well.
Thorson and co. will be facing an experienced Spartan secondary, led by two seniors: Darian Hicks and Demetrious Cox, but one that hasn’t really lived up to expectations over the past few years. This year, the Spartans rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in pass defense – something that would have been unheard of during Pat Narduzzi’s tenure as their defensive coordinator, now the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Michigan State has also had a lot of trouble getting off the field on third down, ranking 13th in the Big Ten with a 45.2 percent opponent third down conversion rate. The ‘Cats offensively have struggled to stay on the field as well, and whichever side can sustain drives will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game.
On the other side of the football, Tyler O’Connor came into the season as the Spartans starter, but after a rough start, he’s thrown just 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, the Spartans listed all three of their quarterbacks as the starter on this week’s depth chart.
Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke could both see some action, or even possibly the start against the ‘Cats. Terry and O’Connor are both dual-threat QBs, thought not nearly as good as Tommy Armstrong Jr., but the ‘Cats will still have to contain them on the ground. If either gets going, Northwestern could be in for a rough day on the road.
Similarly, Michigan State’s rushing attack, which was supposed to spearhead the offense, led by the three-headed monster of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London, could pose problems for the ‘Cats defensive line. But due to offensive lines struggles, among other things, Michigan State’s rushing attack hasn’t lived up to expectations: Sparty’s averaging just 4.0 yards per carry with Scott at 311 yards on the season and Holmes at 208. If Northwestern can slow down Scott, Holmes and London, a one-dimensional Spartan offense will pose much less of the threat.
R.J. Shelton, a similar player to Solomon Vault, leads the Spartans in receiving yards and can be dangerous in the open field, but without Aaron Burbridge and MacGarrett Kings Jr., the Spartans top two targets from last season, their receiving crops aren’t as dangerous.
Penetration, and a turnover or two especially if Terry or Lewerke start under center, will be key on the road if the ‘Cats want to upset Michigan State. Northwestern cannot afford to let Michigan State jump ahead early on their homecoming and stopping the combination of Scott, Holmes and London will be key.
If the ‘Cats can jump out to an early lead, similar to Iowa, and take the homecoming crowd out of the game, Northwestern could be well on its way to a victory. It won’t be a high-scoring affair, but if Northwestern wins the turnover battle and can find some running room for Jackson, getting the offense going, they should be able to pull the upset in East Lansing.