5 things to watch in Northwestern vs. Michigan State
By Ryan Choe
No. 8 Northwestern is coming off its most impressive win of the season in a victory over Wisconsin. After only turning the ball over once in their first two games combined, the Badgers committed five turnovers en route to a loss to the Wildcats. Northwestern plays Michigan State this weekend who look to rebound from their previous two games, in which they gave up 73 total points and scored a mere 7. Here are five key things to watch for this weekend.
1. The Northwestern defense
After I predicted that the defense would fail to generate a single takeaway last week, the ‘Cats defense went on to force a season-high five turnovers in week five. Wisconsin’s quarterback Graham Mertz took three sacks and threw his first interceptions of the season, while the Badgers’ offense fumbled twice. After giving up a 40-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, the Northwestern defense did not allow a single point in the final three quarters. So far this season, Northwestern’s opponents have only scored 10 total points against its defense in the second half. For Wisconsin, this was just the third regular season game in which it was held under 400 total yards since last year — with two of those games coming against the Wildcats.
The Northwestern secondary led by junior Greg Newsome II, senior JR Pace, junior Cameron Ruiz and redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph played a solid game after giving up the long touchdown pass, snagging three interceptions to bring their season total to 11. The ‘Cats have already racked up more interceptions this year in six games than all of the last season (7). On paper, the Northwestern defense matches up favorably with Michigan State’s offense. Northwestern’s defense currently allows the fourth-fewest points per game in the nation (12.6), while the Spartans are scoring the fewest points per game in the conference (15.3). Keep an eye out for Joseph, who leads the country with five interceptions, and sophomore defensive lineman Eku Leota, who has the second-most sacks in the conference.
2. Senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
After a decent yet relatively quiet start to the season, Chiaokhiao-Bowman turned in the two best games of his Northwestern career over the last two weeks. After Chiaokhiao-Bowman erupted for career highs in receptions (8), yards (86) and touchdown receptions (3) against Purdue in week four, he backed it up with a new record for receiving yards (95) on four receptions for one touchdown against an even tougher Wisconsin defense. Although Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s two breakout performances came during games where Northwestern failed to successfully run the ball, the connection he and quarterback Peyton Ramsey have developed is promising. As opposing defenses will surely pay more attention to Chiaokhiao-Bowman in future games, it will be important to see how this affects his efficiency and production.
3. The Northwestern running game
The expectations for Northwestern’s running game were sky-high after putting up big numbers against Maryland in week one. Since then, however, the rushing attack has dried up. After rushing for only 80 yards and zero touchdowns on 40 attempts in week four against Purdue, the ‘Cats ran for 24 total yards and zero touchdowns on 23 carries against Wisconsin. These are the only games where Mike Bajakian’s run-focused offense has failed to gain at least 140 total yards and a single touchdown on the ground. Northwestern has a great opportunity to right the ship this week, as Michigan State is currently allowing an average of 149.3 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns per game. While it is promising to see that Peyton Ramsey can deliver in the passing game when called upon, the ‘Cats must reestablish their running game in order to present a balanced and dangerous all-around offense. Look to see if junior Isaiah Bowser, sophomore Drake Anderson or senior Jesse Brown can help rekindle a spark in the running game.
4. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey
This past week, Ramsey did not throw a single interception or turn the ball over for the first time since week one. In a game where Wisconsin’s quarterback Graham Mertz turned the ball over four times (three interceptions and one fumble), Ramsey’s ability to take care of the ball made a massive difference. With the rushing attack struggling against a stingy Wisconsin defense, Ramsey completed 23 of 44 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. This performance came after he completed 23 of 36 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns in week four against Purdue. In the first three games, the Northwestern offense leaned on a successful running game; however, Ramsey has proven over the past two weeks that he can deliver when needed. His connection with senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman continues to bloom and he shouldn’t have much difficulty going up against a Michigan State defense that is giving up an average of 242.3 passing yards per game and only has three forced interceptions on the season (all by one defender, redshirt junior cornerback Shakur Brown). Ramsey needs to use the next three weeks as preparation for a potential Big Ten Championship Game appearance. If he can keep his turnover numbers low and continue to play the way he has the past two weeks, expect the offense to improve over the home-stretch of the season.
5. Penalties and time of possession
The ‘Cats had a clean game in week four as they were only penalized once for five yards while the Badgers were penalized eight times for 69 yards. Although there were a handful of questionable calls throughout the game, the number of penalties Wisconsin suffered undoubtedly made a difference. Northwestern must continue to avoid penalties this week and not give Michigan State any free yards.
Additionally, Northwestern has dominated the time of possession so far this season; the ‘Cats have held the ball for 156:28 while their opponents have held the ball for 143:32. Continuing this trend down the road will be something to pay attention to, as it is key in Northwestern’s ability to keep the score under its control.
The ‘Cats are sizable favorites in this week’s game (-13.5) and are riding high after a victory over Wisconsin boosted them to a top-10 ranking in the first CFP Poll. Because of Michigan State’s struggles so far this season, it would be easy to overlook the Spartans, however Northwestern cannot afford to look ahead. With hopes of a perfect season still on the line, the ‘Cats should keep this hope alive and cement its place as a top-10 program in the country against the Spartans. If the Northwestern running game can rebound against Michigan State and its defense continues to stifle opposing offenses, the team will improve to 6-0. My prediction is that the ‘Cats turn in an all-around dominating performance.
Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 35-10
Bold prediction: Northwestern’s defense gets a pick-six.