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Game Preview: Northwestern Wildcats vs. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s homecoming for the Michigan State Spartans, as the Northwestern Wildcats visit East Lansing. MSU lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Northwestern in Evanston last year, and has actually dropped two in a row to the Wildcats.

Let’s preview the 2018 matchup to help us to determine what to expect on Saturday.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2018 Record — 3-1 (1-0 Big Ten)

Offense (per game basis)— 381 total yards, 251.25 passing yards, 129.8 rushing yards,

Defense (per game basis)— 288.25 yards allowed, 323.67 passing yards allowed, 40.3 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored (per game basis): 29.25

Cumulative Points Allowed (per game basis): 22

Current S&P+ Ranking: 21st

2018 Record — 1-3 (1-1 Big Ten)

Offense (per game basis) — 368.8 total yards, 274 passing yards, 94.8 rushing yards

Defense (per game basis)— 379 yards allowed, 236.75 passing yards allowed, 142.3 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored (per game basis): 22.25

Cumulative Points Allowed (per game basis): 26.75

Current S&P+ Ranking: 59th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 37-19
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 23, 2013 (30-6)
Last Northwestern Win: Oct. 15, 2017 (39-31, 3OT)
Michigan State all-time record: 697-454-44
Northwestern all-time record: 537-663-44

Previous Game Results (Quick Hits Recap)

Michigan State 31, Central Michigan 20
After trailing 3-0 after one quarter, Michigan State’s offense caught fire in the second quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points. The momentum carried over into the second half, as MSU added two more touchdowns and built a 31-3 lead. The Chippewas were able to piece together some fourth quarter scores to make the game look a lot closer than it actually was, and the Spartans left the stadium with an 11-point victory. It wasn’t a great game against a lesser opponent, but a win is a win. The biggest news of that day was that starting wide receiver Cody White broke his had and will miss several weeks.

The Spartans will now gear up for the homecoming game:

Michigan 20, Northwestern 17

To put it bluntly, Northwestern blew this one. The Wildcats built a 17-0 lead in the first half, and took a 10-point lead with them into the locker room at halftime. The offense, which has struggled all year in the second half of games, sputtered and the defense allowed just enough points to falter. The Wolverines completely shutdown Northwestern’s offense in the second half. In fact, the Wildcats didn’t even get into Michigan territory. Northwestern’s pass defense play well, but Michigan was able to get the ground game going with Karan Higdon and move the football late.

Meanwhile for the Wildcats, Jeremy Larkin makes the transition from player to coach after having to retire due to a neck injury. We wish him well.

Key Matchups

Clayton Thorson vs. MSU secondary: Thorson absolutely torched the Spartans’ defense in 2017 with 356 yards and three total touchdowns. This year, he has had to come back from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s bowl game and has struggled at times. He still has all of the ability in the world to light it up at any given time, so MSU needs to be prepared. The Spartans have had their struggles defending the pass, but have improved the past two games (though CMU isn’t a great measuring stick).

Northwestern linebackers vs. MSU running backs/tight ends: Paddy Fisher broke out as a true freshman last year with 111 tackles and four forced fumbles. So far this year, he has recorded 34 tackles and one forced fumble, and is a big presence on defense. Another player in the linebacking corps has emerged this season, as Blake Gallagher leads the team in tackles with 38. It will be interesting to see how MSU’s playmakers, particularly at the running back and tight end positions (two positions that have struggled), are able to maneuver around the field.

MSU offensive line vs. Northwestern defensive line: Players like Joe Gaziano and Jordan Thompson can cause disruption in the backfield, and Michigan State’s issues on the offensive line have been well documented. Gaziano and Thompson have combined for nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season. If the Northwestern defensive line gets good push and can hurry Brian Lewerke and shut down the running game, it’s going to be a long afternoon for MSU. The o-line must step up, and hopefully Cole Chewins will be back in the lineup this week.

Game Info

Time: Noon EST
TV Channel: FS1
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Weather expectations: Scattered thunderstorms expected, 73 degrees at kickoff, winds blowing southwest at 10-12 miles per hour


Northwestern’s offense has not been able to get a lot going, especially in the second half. Following Larkin’s retirement, it feels like the Wildcats still need to find an identity on offense. NW’s pass defense is solid, though, and the unit is relatively stout against the run. Last year’s game was a shootout, but I could see this one being a lot more defensive as both offenses have struggled to run the ball and both offensive lines are questionable.

If the Spartans want to win this game, it will be imperative that MSU is able to get the ground game going and control the clock. With LJ Scott’s status uncertain (day-to-day), players like Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson will need to step up. In the passing game, Brian Lewerke needs to limit his mistakes, especially in the red zone. The MSU defense remains dominant against the run. The unit must keep that up.

One other factor to consider is injuries. Cody White, LJ Scott, Cole Chewins, Josiah Scott, Josh Butler, Kevin Jarvis, Darrell Stewart, Jake Hartbarger and others remains either out or questionable. Who will step up?

For more on Northwestern, check out Matt Hoeppner’s “Get to know the opponent” piece, or McLain Moberg’s “The Only Questions” article.

Northwestern is struggling right now, but the Wildcats have played the Spartans tough recently. I can see this as a grind-it-out type game with a close final score, but I would still put my money on Michigan State. How about you?


Who wins this Big Ten tilt?

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    Michigan State
    (136 votes)
  • 14%
    (23 votes)
159 votes total Vote Now