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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Six — Northwestern

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The reeling Spartans look to end a three game skid against Northwestern

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

To be completely upfront, I did not watch the BYU game. I was in my namesake city of Austin, Texas at the Austin City Limits Music festival having a rollicking good time. If you can see Kygo or Mumford and Sons live, I urge you to do so.

I was planning on catching it before I wrote this article — really I was — but then Twitter intervened.

That and the box score were all I needed to see. Just when you think “this can’t get worse” it does.

Programming note: I’ll be in East Lansing Saturday. You can find me at PT’s. I’ll be the one weeping softly in between spins of the shot wheel.


How We’re Feeling.gif

A lot of comparisons have been made between this team and the 2012 team that went 7-6. That was the last time MSU lost three games in a season and had any uncertainty at quarterback. I’m starting to believe that’s where the similarities end.

You may want to sit down for this next part — this team appears to be worse. A lot worse.

First, the ‘12 team also never lost three games in a row. They did lose four of five, but we have to go all the way back to 2009 — the only time MSU finished a season with a losing record — for three straight.

Secondly, aside from the 17-point loss at Notre Dame, each loss was by no more than four points. Last week’s 17-point defeat was only the second worst loss in the last three games.

Finally — and I realize this is stretching a bit — but the six losses from ‘12 were to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern, mostly programs you don’t bemoan losing close games to in a down year.

This year MSU has choked away a game at Indiana and gotten man-handled at home by BYU and Wisconsin (who I would include on the “teams I don’t mind losing close games to” list but close is the operative word). Those are quite bemoan-able losses for a team coming off of a playoff appearance, especially when they come in back-to-back-to-back fashion.

In summation, this has a (good) chance to be the worst season we have seen since Mark Dantonio took the reins.

Northwestern Offense vs Michigan State Defense

Duke v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Notable Wildcats

  • Leading Passer: QB Clayton Thorson — 92-for-169 (54.4%) 1,120 yards, 8 TD/4 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Justin Jackson — 109 carries, 510 yards, 4 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Austin Carr — 32 catches, 465 yards, 6 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: S Montae Nicholson — 41 tackles, 1 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 Sacks, 3 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Vayante Copeland/LB Andrew Dowell/CB Darian Hicks/LB Jon Reschke — 1 (tie)

I guess we should talk about this weeks game, eh?

It pits two of the worst offenses in the conference against each other. Even after last week’s 38-point bonanza against Iowa, Northwestern has the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten with only 103 points scored.

Wait (strokes imaginary beard) that means (overhead lightbulb turns on/explodes) WE AREN’T IN LAST PLACE! YEEEESSSSSS REVEL IN THIS WITH ME, PEOPLE! IT HELPS MASK MY INNER ANGUISH!

(Full disclosure: MSU has only scored 105 points, second worst in the conference behind even Rutgers. RUTGERS. Gross.)

The ‘Cats are led by QB Clayton Thorson, who is somehow managing fewer yards per attempt (6.63) and rocking a lower QB Rating (121.0) than Tyler O’Connor (7.63 - 137.5). He doesn’t do much and the ground and appears to throw to only one receiver. Most years this would be a cake walk. This year, not so much.

Thorson aside, NW basically has two offensive players of note — RB Justin Jackson and WR Austin Carr.

Jackson (5’11” 193) is the workhorse and was the key to their road win against Iowa last week, running for 171 yards and a touchdown. He has eclipsed 500 yards on the ground this season and no other back is even close to him on the depth chart. Thorson — who has size at 6’4” 220 — has 43 carries for only 52 yards and after him 21 carries have been dispersed among five players. It’s Jackson’s show.

Carr (6’1” 200) is their most dangerous weapon through the air and accounted for 3 TD catches last week. Just how much does Thorson rely on Carr? Here’s a look at Northwestern’s top six receivers on the year.

Sooooo yeah. Carr’s the guy the defense needs to focus on.

Speaking of defense, here’s a brief MSU defensive update: None of the problems have been fixed and even more guys are hurt. Should I stop there? No? Ok, well if we’re gonna go big then lets start with a statement that nearly made me pass out. You ready?

Michigan State has literally the worst pass rush in the country.

Among Power 5 conference teams (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) they are tied with West Virginia and Vanderbilt for the fewest sacks (5) nationwide. Let that sink in. WEST VIRGINIA AND VANDERBILT. That is almost incomprehensible for a program with a reputation like MSU’s but, as has been mentioned many times before, losing eight players from any playing group will have huge implications.

There is some “good” news, however. It looks like they held up fairly well against BYU’s rushing attack in the first half last week sans Malik McDowell. Plus, Riley Bullough is on the depth chart again and is “close” to being ready. This team needs him more now than ever, not just for his talent but for his pre-snap brains.

Even with Bullough back, it’s hard to picture the defense getting a whole lot better without adding any pass rush. In that vein, Ed Davis saw his highest snap count last week and has said he’s finally feeling like his old self. If that’s true, it should provide at least some type of boost. For the worst pass rush in the country, every little bit helps.

In the secondary, the only real development is that Justin Layne is now listed as Vayante Copeland’s backup ahead of Josh Butler and David Dowell. He was recruited as a wideout but did play some DB in high school and MSU’s history of using players on both sides of the ball is well known. At 6’2” 180 he has the size and speed to stick with top wideouts. Getting playing time over Butler and Dowell speaks to his natural talent level but it also speaks to a lack of development from the depth players being jumped by a true freshman playing out of position.

I want to say that MSU should be able to at least slow the running game and has CB’s good enough to keep Carr in check, but I think I speak for Spartan Nation when I say I’m in “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode.

Michigan State Offense vs Northwestern Defense

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer — QB Tyler O’Connor — 78-for-128 (60.9%) 976 yards, 8 TD/5 INT
  • Leading Rusher — RB LJ Scott — 70 carries, 311 yards, 2 TD
  • Leading Receiver — WR RJ Shelton — 21 catches, 262 yards, 2 TD

Notable Wildcats

  • Leading Tackler — LB Jaylen Prater — 46 tackles, 1 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist — DE Ifeadi Odenigbo — 5 sacks, 5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk — CB Montre Hartage/S Godwin Igwebuike/S Jared McGee/CB Trae Williams — 1 (Tie)

Last week, I wrote this...

O’Connor deserves the chance to right the ship, even though he hasn’t instilled much confidence. By waiting four years for his chance to start he has earned the opportunity to control his own fate.

[...]

The ONLY way a switch might happen is if O’Connor is considerably worse than he was against Wisconsin and MSU loses in convincing fashion at home again. At that point you don’t leave the staff many choices.

Welp. That’s not awesome.

The staff seems to agree that it’s time to move from Tyler O’Connor to another QB in the hopes of a slightly more explosive offense. Although they haven’t confirmed the starter just yet, those of you on #TeamTerry can probably rejoice, your time appears to have come.

Damion Terry, not Brian Lewerke, was the first man off the bench against the Cougars after the offense stalled under O’Connor. The redshirt junior was able to lead one of only two Spartan scoring drives of the day and though his time didn’t feature many explosive plays, he did show running ability and was able to connect with Felton Davis on a 28-yard pass.

The key to Terry continuing to play are his legs. The offense needs a couple shots in the arm and adding a QB who can get out of a collapsing pocket and be a plus runner would be enormous.

Right now, Terry’s running prowess is more reputation than substance, but if the legends are true he may be what the team needs to get out of the rut they’re in. Although, if he keeps throwing interceptions we may be going back to TO’C or getting Brian Lewerke before too long. At this point, who knows.

It might not matter who is under center if the offense line doesn’t improve. This week the depth chart features “OR” at center and right guard, where Brian Allen and Benny McGowan are split. The youngsters are also fully in the mix, as Tyler Higby is officially the starting left guard and Cole Chewins and Thiyo Lukusa are likely to get some action.

They will face a Northwestern defense that ranks 7th in the Big Ten in scoring defense but 12th in yards allowed. They feature a pretty good edge rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo who has 5 sacks (read: as many as MSU’s entire team) despite not being listed as a starter. Odenigbo does have almost half of the sacks though, as the team only has 12.

Chicago’s Big Ten team does have some good linebackers in Jaylen Prater, Anthony Walker and Joseph Jones that help them be middle of the pack in rush defense but they are also dead last in pass defense. Several DB’s including those listed above in the Notables section have made plays, but they’ve been carved up to the tune of almost 250 yards per game.

This doesn’t really play to the strength — if you can call it that — of the MSU offense, which should be the run game. We’ll see if Gerald Holmes — who out-carried LJ Scott 15 to three vs BYU — or any of the other RB’s can get traction or if MSU will play out of style and try to challenge the vulnerable NW secondary.

If Terry, or whoever the QB ends up being, can find a rhythm in this one they’ll probably hang onto the job for at least another week or so.

No matter how you slice it, points will be at a premium.

Special Teams

I searched for a picture to put here and that popped up. It seemed like an appropriate summation of MSU’s Special Teams to date, so I left it. There is almost nothing to note on either side.

Jake Hartbarger remains the lone bright spot for the Spartans but he didn’t even down one inside the 20 last week. Shelton had a 31-yard kick return last week. That’s about it.

Luckily, the Cats don’t have much going on either. Their kicker, Jack Mitchell, is a Geiger-esque 2-of-5 on the year with a seemingly inexplicable make from 40. Their returners haven’t done much outside of a 47-yard punt return by Flynn Nagel.

If this game is a punt-off — and is there really any doubt? — Hunter Niswander will be ready to rock. He has accounted for 1,363 yards in punts through five games, almost 275 yards per contest. That is nuts. He has a big leg, which probably means a decent amount of bad field position for MSU. Just what the offense needs!

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Dantonio’s team is in a tough spot. So far, MSU has put together the 13th-rated scoring offense in the conference and has the fewest sacks in the nation among Power 5 teams. When almost literally nothing is working, there’s no such thing as a quick fix.

Many people, myself included, came into 2016 thinking 10 wins and another division title were very possible. After the win over Notre Dame, I felt I may have even underestimated how far MSU could go. It is incredible how drastically things have changed in three short weeks.

MSU’s only goal now is to make a bowl game and get the bowl practices that come with it. With only seven remaining opportunities to get four wins — including contests against Michigan and Ohio State that look like surefire losses — games like this weekend’s are critical to reaching that plateau and securing those extra practices.

Dantonio has always talked about how critical the extra sessions are for player development and he knows what he’s talking about. Both times his teams have endured 6-win regular seasons (‘09 and ‘12) they have rebounded with 11-win regular seasons the following year. The 2017 group will have the talent to do the same but without those 15 extra chances to improve, the task will be that much taller.

There is no reason to expect them to win this week, though. Northwestern just went on the road and dropped 38 on Iowa while MSU is in the midst of making a Dantonio-Era lowlight reel. But hey, it’s homecoming and I gotta break this streak eventually.

I’m going with the Spartans again but I’ll make this promise to you: If MSU loses, I will not pick them again this season (except maybe against Rutgers).

A late safety lifts MSU to victory because why not.

MSU 16 - NW 14