By Kevin Sweeney
Northwestern gets conference play underway in its third game of the 2019 season, taking on a cross-divisional foe who they’ve owned of late. The Wildcats have beaten Michigan State in three consecutive seasons, all in exciting fashion, and they’ll look to continue their winning ways against the Spartans this season.
Last season’s win over Michigan State was quite the springboard for the Wildcats, a game seen as close to a must-win just to get bowl eligible that sparked a four-game winning streak that helped lead the ‘Cats to a Big Ten West title. A win this season at Ryan Field would be the ideal start of the Wildcats’ title defense.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Northwestern Defense vs Michigan State Offense
Injuries derailed the Spartan offense in 2018. A unit expected to be carried by a veteran QB in Brian Lewerke, RB in LJ Scott, and WR in Felton Davis quickly turned into a skeleton crew featuring a banged-up Lewerke or backup Rocky Lombardi running the offense and backups abound at the skill positions. As a result, MSU’s offense fell off a cliff down the stretch, scoring 6, 6, 14, and 6 points in its final four games en route to a 1-3 finish to the season.
A shoulder injury to Lewerke suffered in week 6 against Penn State was the biggest blow, as in the first six weeks Lewerke completed 60% of his passes, averaged 264.5 passing yards per game, and threw 8 touchdown passes to 7 interceptions. While those numbers are far from perfect, they are FAR better than his final five games, in which he posted a completion percentage of 43%, threw for more than 150 yards in a game just once, and failed to throw a touchdown pass. A healthier Lewerke should give the Spartans a lift, and he should get more chances to show off his big arm and gunslinger mentality under new offensive coordinator Brad Salem, who was hired internally but is expected to bring more modern influences to a Spartan offense that has been decidedly pro-style in years past.
The only benefit to an injury-riddled season is the experience it provides younger players the opportunity to develop on the fly. Running back Connor Heyward was solid as as the lead back after Scott’s injury, especially when you consider teams sold out on defending the run down the stretch and how poor the Spartans’ offensive line play was at times last season. MSU also gets back three key receivers in Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor, a group that could challenge a young Wildcat cornerback room.
The main question for Mark Dantonio’s bunch on the offensive side of the ball remains offensive line play, which saw nine players play significant snaps last year due to injuries and poor play. There are still a number of question marks up front, and with Northwestern’s biggest strength being its front seven, the Wildcats have a chance to wreak havoc.
Northwestern Offense vs Michigan State Defense
For a Northwestern team whose offensive line promises to be of some concern (especially early in the season), Michigan State is about as difficult a matchup as possible. The Spartans have an elite front seven, including perhaps the best defensive lineman (Kenny Willekes) and linebacker (Joe Bachie) in the Big Ten, and are as difficult as anyone in the country to run the ball against. In last year’s game, Northwestern largely abandoned the running game, rushing for just eight total yards on 18 attempts. I’d expect a more balanced effort this season, as in last year’s game the ‘Cats had just lost Jeremy Larkin for the season and were testing out options at the running back spot. We’ve seen that Isaiah Bowser has a Justin Jackson-like ability to always fall forward and scrap for the extra yard, and that will be necessary against a team as tough in the trenches as Michigan State is.
Being able to run the ball will partially be determined by how well Hunter Johnson and the Wildcat offense is able to stretch the field vertically. The return of Josiah Scott should help the MSU secondary, but a Northwestern team that struggled to find explosive plays had three touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer in the 2018 game, thanks in part to botched coverages in the back end for the Spartan defense. Giving Johnson time to throw against the pass-rushing ability of MSU and getting enough push up front to remain balanced between run and pass have to be the primary objectives for the Northwestern offense.
Northwestern 27, Michigan State 24
This one will be a battle that probably comes down to the final possession, and given what we know about this rivalry, we should expect nothing less. How the Michigan State offense rebounds from a brutal 2018 will determine whether this is a team that can legitimately contend with Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten East, but the pieces are in place for this club to be very dangerous on both sides of the ball. It will take a complete effort on both sides of the ball for Northwestern to get off to the start they are looking for in Big Ten play.