The Wildcats rolled to a high-scoring victory last year in East Lansing and will try to repeat against a Michigan State team trying to rebound from a disastrous 2016 an return to its former glory. Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s Spartan squad.
Last year was a forgettable one for Spartan football fans. Their seven-game losing streak was the longest by a big margin in Mark Dantonio’s ten years at the helm, and their only conference win came against Rutgers. Although it was a 49-0 shellacking of Rutgers, it was still a 49-0 shellacking of Rutgers. Draw your own conclusions.
After their title run and CFP appearance in 2015, Michigan State recruited a top-20 class, but lost a good chunk of their nine four-star recruits to a sexual assault scandal. This could not have come at a worse time, given the fact that between transfers, dismissal and graduation, the Spartans now return only five starters this year. While anything seems better than finishing a game above Rutgers in the Big Ten East standings, fans of the green and white had best buckle up for a mediocre season at best.
When these two teams met in East Lansing last year, Northwestern rallied from an early 14-0 deficit, eventually rolling to a 54-40 win. It was a mostly complete effort by the Wildcats. Justin Jackson ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns, while Clayton Thorson piled it on for 281 yards and three TDs himself. The defense for Northwestern at times let up big scores out of nowhere, but between an offense firing on all cylinders and that same defense holding Michigan State to just three yards of offense in the second quarter, the game was never really in question in the second half.
Michigan State Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
The Spartans will start their third QB in as many years in sophomore Brian Lewerke this year. He saw the Wildcats in a few sequences in last year’s contest when Tyler O’Connor started to fall apart, but had his season cut short by a broken leg, giving O’Connor his job back. Lewerke is new, but what he does have over O’Connor are his mobility and relatively low interception and sack rates.
In 2015, with Connor Cook under center, the Spartans ranked 21st in standard-downs run rate and 121st in passing-downs run rate. In 2016, the tandem of Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke ranked 22nd and 100th, respectively. This is an offense that plays to conventionality as far as when to run and when to pass. This predictability, coupled with Lewerke’s relative inexperience as a shot-caller, will be something that the Northwestern defense, especially the vaunted Sky Team secondary, will look to capitalize on. With O’Connor graduated, Lewerke is slated as the starter this year, and is a slightly worse passer than Cook was. That being said, Lewerke is pretty mobile and can create opportunities for himself seemingly out of thin air, and is more of a threat to run than his predecessors.
As far as targets go, sophomore Trishton Jackson has a lot of potential at wide receiver, and is a season away from the All-Big Ten First Team conversation his junior year. He’s the de facto leader at WR this year with leading returning receiver Donnie Corley having been dismissed from the team in the offseason. Sparty lost some power at tight end. Josiah Price (22 career TDs) has graduated, but junior Matt Sokol is just a bigger, quicker stronger version of him. With the only thing holding him back on paper being his relative lack of experience, he could be a sleeper on this offense these next two years.
Where Michigan State has makes its living and finds its success and consistency is in its run game, and we shouldn’t expect anything to change this year. Junior tailback L.J. Scott rushed for 100+ yards in four of his last six games, and wants to tack a few more onto his NFL resume before his planned departure after this year. He and the rest of the backs will be helped by the experience and leadership of senior Gerald Holmes.
The line situation isn’t pretty as a whole for Michigan State, but the offensive line is more manageable than its counterpart. It returns the only lineman to start all 12 games in Brian Allen as its leader, but the rest of the line is in a state of flux, which is not an appealing quality in an offensive line, to say the least. As stated before, Lewerke can move, so in theory it could be enough to counteract some weaknesses in his protection, but that’s not where my money lies. Also, this happened last year, and that man in purple and white is expected to step up in a big way this year to lead the front four for Northwestern.
Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
Michigan State’s defense could not put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year, ranking 124th in the nation in adjusted sack rate, per footballoutsiders.com. Things aren’t looking up this year either. The line alone is losing half of its top 10 performers.
The task of turning things around for the front four will fall to sophomore tackles Raequan Willimas and Mike Panasiuk, who were four-start recruits and have high ceilings and big roles to play in MSU’s rebuild these next few years. However, a pass rush that ranked 120th in Passing S&P+ last year will not be helped by one of the greenest secondaries in the conference and an almost complete lack of presence in the defensive end position, especially if highly-touted recruit Demetrius Cooper doesn’t redeem himself from a disappointing 2016 campaign.
A lot of the uncertainty in the Spartan secondary will ideally be sorted out by the time week eight rolls around, but this year will be at least partial trial-and-error for co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. For Northwestern, all the pieces are in place for Clayton Thorson to have a field day, especially if the Wildcats can have someone emerge as that elusive deep threat to replace Austin Carr this year.
Jake Hartbarger will be doing the punting again this year after quietly registering a solid year with a 40.9-yard average in 2016. At placekicker, however, is where things get interesting. As of now that’s Matt Coghlin’s job. He’s a freshman replacing the now-graduated Michael Geiger’s very, very steady boot, and his numbers were average at best in high school.
Closing Thoughts and Prediction vs Northwestern
The superior team from Michigan until last year for much of recent memory was not supposed to flop the way it did last year. At least not on paper. Not many expected them to go back to the College Football Playoff, but a 3-9 season was not how they expected to end a three-year streak of finishing in the top five teams in the nation. This season was the year that was “supposed” to be the rebuilding year MSU, highlighted by a hefty number of departures in the offseason. But Mark Dantonio is one of the game’s modern greats for a reason, so don’t expect a repeat of 2016. In summary, I predict a six-win season with a 4-5 conference record. Aggressively average, but enough to take the Spartans bowling again.
One of those losses will come against Northwestern at Ryan Field on October 28. I see it as a “trap game” for the Wildcats, but on paper there’s no reason they shouldn’t handle the Spartans. Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson balled out in a two-pronged offensive barrage last year, and they’re only getting better. Defensively, expect the Sky Team to show up and keep the Spartans on the ground. A 41-20 victory sounds about right.
You can hear Sam Brief and Henrique DaMour on that call, along with every snap of every game all season long on WNUR Sports.