By Kevin Sweeney
Nothing has been typical about the last three meetings between Northwestern and Michigan State.
In 2016, Northwestern scored 54 points, a total eclipsed just one other time in the Pat Fitzgerald era, to beat a MSU team that had reached the College Football Playoff the year prior.
In 2017, the teams dueled late into the Evanston night in a 3OT thriller that ended in a fumbled snap by Brian Lewerke that led to an interception in the end zone by Nate Hall. That game also featured a touchdown pass thrown by Justin Jackson.
Then, in 2018, coming off a 1-3 start with bowl eligibility a legitimate question mark, Northwestern went into East Lansing and won despite rushing for a grand total of 8 yards in the game.
All that said, it’d be surprising if Saturday’s tilt between the two programs doesn’t wind up being an absolute thriller. Two of the best defenses in college football will face off, with our friends in the desert setting the over/under at 38 (the lowest of any game this week).
Specifically, it’s stopping the run where Michigan State makes its money. After conceding under 3 yards per carry last season, the Spartan front has been even better so far in 2019, with opponents tallying just 0.9 yards per rush this season.
“You very rarely see them ever beat themselves,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the MSU defense. “They tackle incredibly well… they just play outstanding team defense.”
Even without Isaiah Bowser, the Wildcat offense was able to dominate the line of scrimmage and run the ball with ease against UNLV. The ‘Cats ran the ball 50 times for 276 yards against the Runnin’ Rebels, and likely won’t have that luxury against MSU. With that, even more pressure goes on Northwestern QB Hunter Johnson to consistently make plays in the passing game.
Despite virtually abandoning the running game, Northwestern still found a way to move the ball against the Spartans in 2018, scoring more points than any other Big Ten team against MSU. How? the Wildcats hit on a pair of big plays in the passing game, and will likely have to do so again Saturday. The Spartans play lots of press man-to-man on the outside and leave themselves open to being exposed deep. However, strong pass protection is necessary to give Hunter Johnson the necessary time to get the ball down the field. Also important is Johnson’s receivers making a few plays after several drops against UNLV.
Moving the ball hasn’t been the problem for Michigan State on offense, it has been the inability to finish drives. Penalties and missed field goals doomed the Spartans against Arizona State, with MSU scoring just 7 points despite racking up over 400 yards of total offense. That would tend to bode well for Northwestern’s “bend-but-don’t-break” defensive mentality, though the ‘Cats have to deal with life without top CB Trae Williams, who is out with an undisclosed injury. Look for AJ Hampton to step up in his absence and Cameron Ruiz to see more time depending on matchups.
With more than 2,000 new students in the stands in addition to other students heading back to town with the start of classes on Tuesday, it should be a great atmosphere at Ryan Field. Join Jake Liker, Kevin Sweeney, and Eric Rynston-Lobel for the call on Mixlr!