Michigan State heads out to face the Northwestern Wildcats this week after beating Indiana 17-9 in a very ugly ball game. But hey it isn’t always going to be pretty. You know what’s always pretty though? Winning. No matter how a team does it, no matter how a team gets there in the end a win feels amazing.
Which is exactly what these Spartans have been able to do so far this season. They claw their way to victory and make just enough plays to come out on top.
They will need to do the same this weekend in a very important road game to keep them in the hunt for the division crown. Playing away from home is universally seen as difficult, luckily The Only Colors has brought in Tristan Jung, from Inside NU. The SBNation site for a great Wildcats community.
Let’s dig in!
Pat Fitzgerald is in his 12th season as head coach of the Wildcats. During that time he has managed to win 81 out of 146 games. Which means he is coming out on top in 55.4% of ball games. How does the fan base feel about Coach Fitzgerald? Does Northwestern plan on having him retire a Wildcat?
Fitz is rapidly reaching "institutional" status at Northwestern after his latest 10-year contract extension. Northwestern is not an easy school to win at, yet Fitzgerald has done it more or less consistently for over a decade. Right now, only crazy people are calling for his job, especially since the team is 4-3 and poised to become bowl eligible once again. However, there is some discontent. For one, the offense has been consistently mediocre, bailed out by luck and a really good defense. This has been the case for almost four years now, and fans are not happy with offensive coordinator Mick McCall and offensive line coach Adam Cushing. There is a concern that if Northwestern continues to scrape by, no changes will be made and the program will be stuck in neutral. However, in terms of his performance, almost all Northwestern fans are still happy with what Fitz has given them so far, even in this up-and-down season.
What is Northwestern's identity with Pat Fitzgerald? How have his philosophies helped his teams to continuously grow not only on the field but off it as well?
Long ago, when Northwestern ran a crazy spread offense with Dan Persa and a bunch of walk-ons (I kid, but that's actually pretty close the truth), Northwestern had an identity as a "chaos team" that could randomly light up more talented opponents. That era is long gone. This team is built on Mike Hankwitz's elite defense. Even with one healthy cornerback, the loss of starting linebacker Anthony Walker, and a bunch of inexperienced defensive lineman, Northwestern's defense is still top 25 in S&P, which is staggering. The offense has a lot of work to do, but the defense is right back to the elite unit it was in 2015 and for parts of 2016.
Give us your pre-season predictions. Does it line up with where the Wildcats currently are? (4-3, 2-2 B1G) Why or why not?
I thought this team would go 8-4. That's not out of the question yet, as Northwestern's remaining West opponents (Minnesota, Purdue, Minnesota, Nebraska) have all been playing mediocre football of late. However, I also hoped that Northwestern would still be within striking distance of the division, and that's not going to happen. I expected Northwestern to at least win the Duke game and have a better chance at 8 wins, but 4-3 at this point in the season is slightly lower than what I expected.
Give me one X-factor from each side of the ball for Northwestern and explain the impact they will have on the outcome of this game.
Offensive X-Factor: I'm not going to say Justin Jackson because he's hardly an X-Factor. Instead, I'm going to go with quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has been fairly bad in conference play so far. Thorson looks like a shadow of his 2016 self. His footwork is bad, his instincts have regressed, and he's not really doing much to help Northwestern's chances of winning. However, Thorson has loads of talent as a runner and as a downfield passer, and he has to have a signature game at some point. Maybe a rematch against an opponent he dominated last season will help him sort things out.
Defensive X-Factor: I'm going to go with defensive end Samdup Miller, a four-star early enrollee who looks like Northwestern's best pass rusher through half of his first college season. Sam and his brother Alex have been a key components of Northwestern's revamped pass rush, along with veteran Tyler Lancaster. Sam Miller has the highlight reel stuff, however, and he's my X-Factor for the remainder of the season and this game.
If three things had to go perfectly for the Wildcats on Saturday to help ensure a victory what would they be and why?
All three of these things are offensive. On defense, the floor is much higher, but any "perfect" functionality on offense would put Northwestern in a really good spot.
1. Northwestern's receivers actually get open sometimes. The receivers, other than Macan Wilson, had almost no separation against Iowa. No receiver had over 50 yards, and 38 of Northwestern's 192 passing yards went to Justin Jackson.
2. Northwestern's offensive line plays at a passable level. When the offense has been bad, it has mainly been because the offensive line is not in rhythm and there is nothing for Thorson or Jackson to work with.
3. Clayton Thorson has no dumb turnovers. This is simple and obvious, so I'll move on.
Northwestern has won back to back conference games (Maryland and Iowa). How confident are they heading into another home game against the Spartans who are also on a streak of their own?
The team is always confident. I'm not worried about that. I feel like Ohio State is the only Big Ten team that owns Northwestern. The team definitely thinks it can beat everyone else, every year, on any given day. As for the fans, no one is very confident. Northwestern's offense looked like complete garbage against an Iowa team that was missing Josey Jewell, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Duke. Michigan State's defense might be the best unit Northwestern will face all year, and the Wildcats' total lack of explosiveness and efficiency from everyone not named Justin Jackson is going to be an issue. But the Wildcats do have Justin Jackson, so there's a shot.
Senior running back Justin Jackson has already carried the ball 133 times and accumulated 603 yards for six touchdowns. This kid is good. Let's put it this way, Justin is a senior and has never finished a season with less than 1,100 yards. That being said the Spartans are ranked 8th in the nation for their ability to stop the run. How do you think Jackson fares this weekend?
Jackson had a minor injury earlier this season, but he looked fine against Maryland and rescued the game against Iowa. I suspect we shall see another fine Justin Jackson day, but not one of his explosive 150+ yard outings (like last year, for example). Northwestern usually needs over 100 yards from Jackson to have any chance at winning, and sheer volume should get him close to that, even against a tough run defense. Michigan State will probably be fine with keeping Jackson around 100 and having the rest of the offense be incapable of moving down the field, however.
Prediction Time: Final score? Who wins? Why?
In our predictions article, I predicted an incredibly boring 10-6 Michigan State victory. Both offenses are going to score 30 points now, though, because it's college football.
I would like to take this time to give one last shout-out to Tristan and the entirety of Inside NU for helping us put this Q&A together. It’s greatly appreciated!