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The Only Questions: Q&A with Northwestern

Know the Wildcats

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

Michigan State will take the field at Spartan Stadium for the second weekend in a row against the Northwestern Wildcats. Kickoff is slated for noon EST.

As usual we are calling upon the editor-n-chief, Caleb Friedman, from Inside NU to tell our Spartan readers everything they need to know about the Wildcats.

Last season the Wildcats finished the season 10-3, beating Kentucky in their bowl game, The Music City Bowl. Surprisingly, they’ve seen a drop off in 2018. They’ve begun the year 1-3 (1-1 B1G), what’s the biggest reason for their slow start?

Northwestern’s offensive line got rolling after the slow start last season, but has struggled this year. Quarterback Clayton Thorson hasn’t had time to sit in the pocket and survey defenses, and Northwestern has virtually no downfield passing game. Because of that, teams can stack the box and make NU one-dimensional. The problem has amplified in second halves -- NU has only scored 13 points in the second half in four games this season, which is dead last in the FBS.

How has the fan base reacted in response to their bad start? Are they upset with Pat Fitzgerald?

People aren’t happy, but the anger is more toward offensive coordinator Mick McCall and offensive line coach Adam Cushing than Fitzgerald. Yes, it’s Fitzgerald’s responsibility to manage his staff correctly, but I think if he changed up his offensive staff, people would be ecstatic. The frustrating part is more how Northwestern has lost -- poor O-line play, bland play-calling and a conservative offensive approach -- which are problems year in and year out. With a difficult schedule this year, NU couldn’t really afford that Akron loss. Now it’s an uphill climb toward bowl eligibility.

Michigan v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern is going for three straight victories against the Spartans. What are three things they will need to accomplish to upset MSU in East Lansing?

Northwestern has one of the stronger defenses in the country right now, but one of the weaker offenses. So, for NU to win Saturday, it needs to make the game ugly and grind it out. Hold the ball on offense, be smart and precise on third downs and bend-but-don’t-break on defense. The Northwestern offense will have a break out week at some point this season, but winning a lower-scoring game is more likely at this stage.

Who are some players Spartan fans should be aware of? Why?

On offense, Solomon Vault returned last week after missing all of last season and the beginning of this season. He took a kickoff back for a touchdown the last time NU played in East Lansing, and he’s getting snaps at running back after starter Jeremy Larkin medically retired because of a neck condition. He began his career at running back, then switched to receiver, but is now back to running back. He’s dynamic in the open field, and should be a bigger part of the gameplan in his second week back.

Defensively, Joe Gaziano is one of the best linemen in the Big Ten. MSU fans may remember him for absolutely crushing Brian Lewerke in the end zone two years ago, but he’s a pretty complete pass-rusher. He strong enough to stop the run at defense end, but quick enough to get around tackles on the outside. He also plays some D-tackle on passing downs, which helps NU get its other talented defensive ends on the field.

Michigan v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In Clayton Thorson’s previous two starts against Michigan State he’s thrown 637 yards, 5 touchdowns, and one interception. What are you expecting out of him this weekend? Can he lead the Wildcats past the Spartans?

There’s nowhere to go but up from last week’s second half against Michigan, but I actually do think Thorson will play well. With how things ended last week, I think the coaching staff will make a concerted effort to protect him and get him in a rhythm. He certainly can lead the Wildcats past the Spartans, but I think his supporting cast will be a bigger determinant of success this weekend. He hasn’t been able to hit on many deeper throws this season, so I’ll be keeping an eye on whether he can connect on some longer throws.

Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?

I think the game will be close because of Northwestern’s defense, but I like Michigan State because I trust its offense more.

Michigan State 24, Northwestern 20.

Central Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images