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Get to Know the Opponent: Northwestern

The Wildcats come to East Lansing having won the previous two meetings with MSU.

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference season is officially over, and it is all Big Ten opponents from here on out for Michigan State. The Spartans are already 1-0 in conference play thanks to their win at Indiana a few weeks back. This week, Northwestern comes to East Lansing for homecoming weekend. The Wildcats have been a thorn in the Spartans side during the Pat Fitzgerald era, including knocking off MSU in triple overtime last year in Evanston. Let’s get to know a little more about our opponents from the Chicago area.

School: Northwestern University

Nickname: Wildcats

Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Location: Evanston, IL

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (13th season)

Record: 1-3 (1-1 in Big Ten)

Mascot: Willie the Wildcat

All Time Series: Michigan State leads 38-15

Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is off to a rough start after a 10-win season last year, culminating in a win in the Music City Bowl over Kentucky. It was the third 10-win season for Fitz as coach of the Wildcats, and he is far and away the winningest coach in school history, nearly doubling the total for second place.

Northwestern has won the last two meetings with Michigan State, having outscored the Spartans 93-71 in two of the highest scoring games in the series. The back-to-back wins for Northwestern over the Spartans are their first since 2000-2001, and only the third time they have won two in a row. They have never beaten MSU three consecutive games.

Team Stats

The Wildcats come in having some offensive issues. They rank 107th in scoring offense, at 22.3 points per game, and 100th in total offense with 368.8 yards per game.

They are 123rd out of 130 teams in rushing offense, averaging 94.75 yards per game, and are even worse in average yards per attempt, where their 2.63 yards per carry are the third worst in the FBS.

This is a nice time to remind everyone that MSU has the best rushing defense in the country, allowing 40.25 yards per game and just 1.49 yards per carry.

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern
Northwestern lost their leading rusher Jeremy Larkin to a career ending medical condition earlier this year.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Now passing is a different story. Northwestern comes in at 40th overall in passing offense with an average of 274 yards per game. However, they are 113th in yards per pass attempt at just 6.1 yards per pass. So clearly the overall total is due to volume, and that becomes obvious when you see that they are fourth in the country in pass attempts per game at 45, the highest total in the Big Ten.

It should also be noted that despite throwing 45 passes per game, the Wildcats have just three passing touchdowns on the season, and have been picked off four times. That is the fewest passing TD’s of any team ranked in the top 30 in attempts per game.

Also of note, Northwestern has allowed 12 quarterback sacks this season, through four games. That puts them towards the bottom of college football in both stats.

Let’s slide over to defense where Northwestern allows 26.8 points per game, putting them at 77th in the country in scoring defense. They are 67th in total defense, allowing 379 yards per game.

They have been decent against the run this year, allowing an average of 142.25 yards per game, good for 55th in the country, and they are 65th allowing 4.01 yards per carry.

The Cats have been a little weaker against the pass where they check in at 84th overall in passing defense allowing 236.8 yards per game. That ranking drops to 97th when looking at yards per attempt, where Northwestern is allowing 7.8 yards for each pass try. They have surrendered six touchdown passes and have three interceptions on the season.

If you are wondering about their ability to bring pressure, it hasn’t been very good. The Wildcats have only six sacks through four games.

Key Players

It pretty much all comes down to senior quarterback Clayton Thorson for Northwestern. The four year starter came back from a knee injury suffered in the Music City Bowl and has had to carry the load for the Wildcat offense. He is completing a little over 60% of his passes this year for 927 yards with three TD’s and three INT’s. Backup T.J. Green saw playing time in each of the first three games of the year but it was all Thorson last time out against Michigan.

Thorson also has 19 career rushing touchdowns coming in, although he is not really a threat with his legs outside the red zone.

At running back the Wildcats found out just a few weeks ago that their starter and leading rusher, Jeremy Larkin, would have to retire from football due to a medical condition. John Moten IV is second on the team in attempt, but has just 57 yards on 25 carries. Running back Cameron Green is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. His 17 receptions are tied for second on the team and he is third with 183 receiving yards. He also leads the team with two touchdown catches.

Senior wideout Flynn Nagel leads the Wildcats in both receptions (26) and yards (291).

On defense, Joe Gaziano comes in leading the team with 2.5 sacks, after recording nine quarterback sacks last year. Gaziano also leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss.

Sophomore linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher are the team leaders in tackles with 38 and 34 tackles respectively.

Kicker Charlie Kuhnbander is just 2-for-4 on field goal attempts this year after going 13-for-16 as a freshman last year. He is perfect on all 11 extra point attempts though.