2020 Opponent Breakdown: Michigan State

By Nicholas Magas

The Northwestern Wildcats will open the 2020 football season on the road against the Michigan State Spartans on September 5. There is still plenty of speculation surrounding logistics for playing college football during COVID-19, most of which remains out of the team’s control as they get set for the upcoming campaign.

Michigan State is coming off a season riddled with mediocrity, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten. The Spartans got off to a hot start, winning four of their first five, including a 31-10 beatdown of Northwestern at Ryan Field. A tough conference schedule got the best of them down the stretch, but they capped off their season on a high note, taking down Wake Forest at Yankee Stadium to win the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

The biggest concern for Michigan State this season will be finding a replacement for three-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke. Redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi is the only QB on the roster to have seen any significant playing time to this point, and while he seems to be the frontrunner to start against Northwestern, his 33% completion percentage across eight games is less than stellar. Lombardi has yet to throw a touchdown in his college career.

Redshirt sophomore Theo Day is the other viable option to take the ball for the Men in Green. A highly touted recruit out of Canton, Michigan, Day has one of the more talented arms on the roster. He did not see any meaningful playing time last season and completed only two passes in as many games.

Payton Thorne, Eli McLean and Noah Kim are listed as the other quarterbacks on the roster. All three are young players with the ability to make a difference for the Spartans in the future. However, the loss of spring practice time this year will significantly hinder their ability to make a run at the starting job early in the season.

If the starting quarterback can carry his weight this season, the Michigan State offense has the potential to do some damage. Running back Elijah Collins plays with a versatile style that showed sparks of brilliance last year. His ability to utilize both power and speed could allow him to break onto the scene as a top-notch ball carrier this season. Collins will be running behind an oft-injured offensive line from last year, but if they can stay healthy, they have the depth and the experience to make life much easier for both Collins and a new face behind center.

This season will mark the first time in the last 13 seasons without Mark Dantonio at head coach. In February, the 64-year-old Dantonio abruptly announced that he would step down from his position. Former NFL Defensive Coordinator and Colorado Head Coach Mel Tucker accepted the job only days later, but questions remain as to whether he will be able to lead MSU to the same success it experienced over the last decade. 

Tucker is a defensive-minded coach with an impressive resume. He has worked alongside Nick Saban, Jim Tressel and a number of others at a handful of big-time college and NFL teams. At Michigan State, he will inherit a talented mix of veteran players and underclassmen. Nevertheless, new faces on the coaching staff combined with the unusual circumstances of the past few months will make it difficult for the Spartans to hit the ground running in the fall. 

Historically, the Michigan State defense has been the pride and joy of football in East Lansing. Tucker will try to keep that tradition alive, with help from new defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Only a few starters return, and defensive end Kenny Willekes should prove to be the most difficult departure to replace. Returning linemen Naquan Jones and Jacub Panasiuk are solid players, but they will have their work cut out for them as the new anchors of the pass rush. The loss of six linebackers will present a need for guys like Antjuan Simmons and Noah Harvey to step into leadership roles. A young secondary will be susceptible to a good passing game and likely be the biggest issue for the Spartans down the stretch.

Michigan State will be a good test for Northwestern in the season opener, as both teams try and bounce back from disappointing seasons. Still, with a new head coach, an inexperienced quarterback, and glaring holes on defense, the Spartans are at least a few years away from being  realistic contenders in the Big Ten.

Score Prediction: Northwestern 23, Michigan State 14