Pregame Preview: Michigan State

Northwestern looks to start the 2021-22 season with a victory starting with a conference matchup at Ryan Field against the Michigan State Spartans. Kickoff at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN.

By Ryan Choe

Fresh off one of the program’s most successful seasons, the ‘Cats head into their opening game with plenty of new faces. Gone is legendary defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, along with 16 combined starters, and in is his successor Jim O’Neil from the Las Vegas Raiders. Friday night’s contest will be more than a debut, however, as Northwestern looks to avenge its lone regular-season loss from last year. Nov. 28, 2020, saw the then-8th-ranked ‘Cats upset by the Spartans, crushing the team’s hopes for a perfect season and a legitimate College Football Playoff run.

1. Northwestern’s Starting QB

For the second consecutive year, Northwestern’s offensive field general responsibilities have been handed to a transfer– just not the transfer some expected. After a successful campaign with Peyton Ramsey at the helm, the hype was high once more when the ‘Cats were able to lure sophomore Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina. Hilinski started 11 games for the Gamecocks as a true freshman in 2019, throwing for 2,357 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. But then, he appeared in just two games last year with six pass attempts. 

Instead, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff have entrusted the keys to the offense to senior Hunter Johnson. Fitzgerald announced Johnson, a once-prized transfer himself from Clemson in 2018, the starter in August. While Johnson has seen his snaps decline ever since his uninspiring 2019 season, where he completed less than 50% of his passes and had a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Fitzgerald and his staff are impressed and confident in Johnson’s improvement.

“I think he’s been through a lot, and I think he’s grown,” Fitzgerald said. “When he’s confident and he lets his talent go out there it’s as good as we’ve had.”

Although Johnson is the starter for week 1, it will be important to monitor his performance. Fitzgerald said the gap between him, Hilinski and senior Andrew Marty is close and that both backups will be there to push Johnson. Marty’s recent involvement in the offense suggests he has more of a Taysom Hill-esque role, as he had five rushing attempts last season and last attempted a pass during the 2019 season. Nonetheless, this first game of the season will give Northwestern fans a good idea of whether the quarterback position will be a nerve-racking liability like in 2019 or a reliable asset similar to last season.

2. The new offensive skill position weapons

The Northwestern offense returns just three season-long starters from last year, all of whom are on the offensive line. This stability, headlined by star sophomore left tackle Peter Skoronski and experienced center Sam Gerak, will be a stark contrast to the protection Johnson had during his first season in Evanston. However, the same level of certainty cannot be expressed for the rest of the offense. While Northwestern saw the departure of Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson through the transfer portal, the coaching staff had more than enough confidence in the rest of the running back room. Sophomores Cam Porter and Evan Hull headlined a capable committee during the offseason, but a devastating lower-body injury will now sideline Porter for the entire season. Hull received a mere 25 carries last season but made the most of them going for 209 yards (an astounding 8.4 avg-per-rush) and two touchdowns. The ‘Cats also brought in Anthony Tyus III, the second-best running back recruit in school history, from the class of 2021 as well as Andrew Clair (who averaged a solid 5.4 yards-per-carry during his four years at Bowling Green) from the transfer portal, giving the position group a blend of youth, depth and promise.

Meanwhile, the receiving corps will field an entirely new unit. The team’s four leading receivers from last season are all gone, who accounted for more than 68% of all receptions and receiving yards. The player returning with the most experience from last season is senior tight end Charlie Mangieri, who only had seven catches (but also an extremely efficient two touchdowns). On the bright side, there are plenty of options on the roster. Graduate transfer wide receiver Stephon Robinson had an impressive 2019-20 season at Kansas, hauling in 45 catches for 727 yards (16.2 avg-per-catch) and eight touchdowns before struggling to stay healthy last season. If Robinson can produce a similar efficiency while donning purple, he is sure to be a dependable and favored target as the season goes on. Junior Malik Washington, senior Berkeley Holman and sophomores Bryce Kirtz and Wayne Dennis all return to the wide receiver room with chances to showcase further development. Senior wide receiver JJ Jefferson also returns after opting out of last season, and Calvin Johnson II and Jordan Mosley bring a sizzle of youthful talent to the position. Johnson was a three-star recruit and top-25 athlete in the state of Mississippi. Mosley was a four-star recruit and top-40 wide receiver in the country, becoming the program’s highest-rated wide receiver commit in history. Second-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has a fascinating chest of toys to work with, so it will be important to see who contributes the most productive snaps during this game.

3. The new-look Northwestern defense

The heart and soul of the program turns the page to a new chapter in its history. Former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz rode off into the sunset and retired on top following his 400th career victory in the 2021 VRBO Citrus Bowl at the conclusion of last season. Furthermore, the defense loses seven starters from last year including first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II, legendary linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher and defensive back JR Pace. 

Northwestern Defense 2021 Stats:
Points Allowed Per Game15.9 (ranked 5th nationally)
Rushing Defense (yards allowed per game)145.89 (ranked 46th nationally)
Passing Defense (yards allowed per game)195.3 (ranked 19th nationally)
Total Defense (yards allowed per game)341.2 (ranked 22nd nationally)

However, there is still much continuity within the unit as graduate student Chris Bergin’s return will provide crucial leadership and guidance for an otherwise heavily inexperienced linebacker corps, and sophomore Brandon Joseph looks to build off his historic 2020-21 campaign where he was named a unanimous first team All-American and led the nation in interceptions. The secondary as a whole is still in secure hands, with junior AJ Hampton, and sophomores Cameron Mitchell, Rod Heard and Coco Azema returning to step up. While sack leader Eku Leota is gone after transferring to Auburn, junior Adetomiwa Adebawore — who had the second-most sacks among all defensive linemen on the team — returns. Additionally, graduate student Samdup Miller, a consensus Freshman All-American in 2017, brings a much needed boost to the pass rush after opting out of the 2020-21 season. Even though a new regime is set with the hiring of Jim O’Neil, many long-tenured defensive assistant coaches have been retained such as Marty Long (defensive line) and Tim McGarigle (linebackers). This game is an excellent opportunity for the defense to show and remind the opposition that it is still an elite unit. 

4. Creating and Avoiding Big Plays

The ‘Cats had just 13 plays from scrimmage that went for 30 or more yards, good for 87th best in the country. Michigan State had 15, with one of those plays being a 75-yard touchdown pass in last year’s matchup. Aside from this blip, Northwestern’s defense only gave up six other plays of 30 or more yards, while the Spartan defense gave up 10. Both teams struggled last year to create home run highlight plays, but both defenses rarely gave them up.

Michigan State still has the speedy and dangerous wide receiver duo of Jalen Nailor (who caught the 75-yard touchdown pass last year) and Jayden Reed. However, on the defensive side of the ball, the Spartan’s leading tackler last season Antjuan Simmons and ball-hawking defensive back Shakur Brown are gone. Simmons had a game-leading 13 tackles last year with Brown snagging two of his five total interceptions during the season against Peyton Ramsey. The winner of this game is likely to have significant big play moments, and it will be important to see which team is able to produce them while simultaneously preventing the other from making them.

5. The Third-down and Turnover Battle

Third downs will be critical moments in this game. Over the entire season, Northwestern converted 39.33% of third downs while holding their opponents’ conversion rate to 29.85%. Michigan State, meanwhile, converted 32.74% of theirs while holding their opponents to 38.32%. However, last year’s contest was a lone outlier for both teams. Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi helped lead his team to victory in part because of his ability to extend and convert multiple third downs. It was Lombardi’s four big scramble runs on long third downs that proved to be especially critical points in the contest. In last year’s game, the ‘Cats converted a meager 5-of-18 third downs, while the Spartans converted a season-high 10-of-21. Over in the turnover department, Northwestern devastated themselves by giving up two interceptions and coughing up two fumbles while the Spartans committed a single interception. The lack of discipline in these two areas are the two primary reasons why the ‘Cats lost an ugly game. If they can play a clean game, the outcome will be much different.

The ‘Cats are favorites in their season opener, but if starting the year with a win wasn’t enough incentive already, returning members from last season’s squad will be extra determined to exact revenge for last year’s heartbreaking loss. Furthermore, the team will have more motivation from Ryan Hilinski, who revealed that his late brother Tyler lost his last collegiate game to Michigan State. Both squads are dealing with the loss of their starting quarterbacks from last year and each respective defense has said goodbye to key contributors in the linebacker positions and secondary. This game will give an idea of how prepared Northwestern is for the season, particularly in regards to conference competition and the quarterback position. If the Northwestern running game is established early the way offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian wants, there should be plenty of opportunities for the passing attack to get into a rhythm. If the team also stays true to its tenacious defensive identity, wins the third-down battle and turnover battle, it’s hard not to see a successful payback victory. 

Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 17-13

Bold prediction: Northwestern’s offense produces a 40+ yard play during the game after only having two of them last season