MSU vs. Northwestern Preview
Saturday at 12:00 EST Michigan State will lineup against a team that’s been a thorn in their side the last couple years. Northwestern took down the Spartans the last two years, both in memorable fashion. The 2016 game featured a quarterback duel with a combined 94 points and 705 passing yards (281 of them coming from Tyler O’Connor). 2017 was a much different game with the same result, with the Fighting Pat Fitzgeralds winning in a triple overtime thriller in Evanston, a game where NW QB Clayton Thorson threw for over 350 yards and 2 TDs to out-duel Brian Lewerke who went for 445 and 4 TDs in his own right. This has always been a tough matchup for MSU, but lucky for them it’s home cooking this week.
Northwestern hasn’t had the results they’ve wanted so far this year, with a 1-3 record coming into this game, but that makes a well coached team very dangerous. After nearly pulling off an upset last week against UofM, Pat Fitzgerald brings his Wildcats into East Lansing hungrier than ever, needing to get back to their winning ways. Clayton Thorson leads this team at quarterback, where he’s going on his 4th year as a starter and has caught the eye of NFL scouts in the process. He’s a big, strong, mobile QB with accuracy to all levels of the field. He has shown the ability to both kill you downfield, or pick you apart underneath, while also running for 19 TDs in his career. In an up-tempo offense Thorson has been throwing the ball almost 45 times per game so far this year, a trend I expect to continue against an MSU team that’s stout against the run, but has proven to be beatable through the air. On the ground this team hasn’t had much success since the forced retirement of starting running back Jeremy Larkin who suffered a neck injury that will unfortunately keep him off the field for the remainder of his career. Taking over the backfield is junior John Moten IV who has only 2.3 ypc so far this year. On defense the Cats are lead by linebacker Paddy Fisher who certainly has a future playing on Sundays. They play fast and aggressive, but have yet to translate this to sacks and turnovers. Look for Pat Fitzgerald to try to dial up some pressure early to force Lewerke into mistakes. A key stat so far this year for NW has been their lack of production in the 2nd half, getting outscored 59-13 after halftime through 4 games.
If you asked the average Spartan fan they’d probably tell you the season has been disappointing to this point. A loss against Arizona State, and underwhelming performances in their 3 wins has left fans with a bitter taste in their mouth, but all is not lost. Ultimately this team is 1-0 in conference play and still has all their goals in-front of them, including a Big Ten Championship. That being said there’s a lot of work to do before that becomes any sort of realistic possibility. Central Michigan is bad, I mean historically bad. I wrote up a preview of their game last week detailing the fact that CMU came into the game with the 2nd worst offense in CFB, and a run defense surrendering almost 200 yards per game, yet, in typical MSU fashion, a slow start and some unforced errors made this game a lot closer than it needed to be. The offense needs to get going early, and has still yet to find any consistency running the football. La’Darius Jefferson (13 carries last week) continues to see more touches as the only RB with over 4 ypc so far this year and we’ll see if he can hold onto his role once LJ Scott returns from injury. The injury bug has bitten MSU all season, and last week it came again with star WR Cody White breaking his hand and leaving a gaping hole opposite Felton Davis. I’m interested to see who steps up in that spot, as Brandon Sowards is currently listed as a starter at the Z position in-front of freshman Jalen Nailor and sophomore Laress Nelson (listed as backup F receiver). On defense a key to this game will be continuing to get pressure on the quarterback. Thorson has shown the ability to carve defenses from a clean pocket, but this Spartan defense has generated a lot of pressure, led by Kenny Willekes, with 12 sacks already on the year, which has helped to force 7 interceptions.
MSU has been banged up all year and this week is no exception. Cody White broke his hand last week and will be out for the foreseeable future. Darrell Stewart, Jalen Nailor, and Cam Chambers all were sidelined last week, though they are all currently listed in the depth chart for Saturday. LJ Scott dressed but didn’t play for a 2nd straight week. LT Cole Chewins has slowly increased his snap count with 21 plays last week as he continues to ease back into the lineup. RG Kevin Jarvis didn’t dress last week. David Beedle and Luke Campbell both played hurt on the offensive line as we try to find some consistency up front. Josh Butler didn’t play much last week but is listed as the starter. On the defensive line, Dillon Alexander and Mufi Hill-Hunt both dressed for the 1st time last week, but neither played. On a positive note, star CB Josiah Scott is apparently close to practicing according to a recent Dantonio press conference.
While MSU is riddled with injuries, Northwestern certainly isn’t healthy either. Defensive starters Nate Hall (LB) and CB Greg Newsome will not play. LT Blake Hance and RG Tommy Doles both played last week but are listed as questionable. SS Trey Pugh was out last week and is listed as questionable this week, while DT Ben Oxley played a bit last week and is questionable going into Saturday afternoon.
Keys to the Game
Fast start for MSU
As already mentioned, the Spartans crawled out of the gates against lowly Central Michigan, while Northwestern blew the doors down in their first quarter against UofM. While MSU ended up winning comfortably, and Northwestern ended up losing their lead in the 2nd half, this is a game the Spartans can’t afford to lose. Northwestern has been bad in the 2nd half, so MSU might be able to overcome a bad start if it happens, but with back to back games against Penn State and Michigan looming, a quick start would be a helpful confidence booster going into this tough stretch.
Pass rush vs. Thorson
Clayton Thorson can be deadly from a clean pocket, but if you rattle him early he’s been prone to making mistakes. Michigan took advantage of this last week with 6 sacks, not allowing him to get comfortable after a hot start. MSU has seen enough of Thorson to know he’s capable of beating them on his own, look for the Spartans to dial up the pressure early to force him into quick decisions and bad throws.
Brian Lewerke is a tremendous college quarterback, who, like most young quarterbacks, has made plenty of bad throws in his career. 2017 Lewerke felt a lot more efficient than 2018 Lewerke, and I believe his willingness to tuck it and run has been a factor. Last season when nothing was available Lewerke was quick to pull it, get 5-10 yards, move the chains, and keep the offense on the field. This season he’s been looking more to find a big play downfield, or in the end zone, making key mistakes in the most important part of the field. Especially after the injury to one of his security blankets, Cody White, I want to see Lewerke be more efficient in the running game to avoid these disastrous interceptions in the end zone.
As of the posting of this article, the spread on betonline.ag has fallen to 10.5 points in favor of the Spartans, a line that opened at 11.5. There’s a few reasons for this, the first being that MSU hasn’t shown the ability to consistently put teams away to the tune of a double digit win. Northwestern has also won the last two contests out-right, meaning they should be confident entering this match up. Since 2015 Michigan State is 18-24 against the spread, and 11-12 ATS at home. In that same time period Northwestern is 12-3 on the road against the spread. MSU wins, but doesn’t cover, give me MSU 34 NW 27.