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Get to Know the Opponent: Northwestern

The Wildcats have had the Spartans number of late, winning the last three meetings.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

We are moving forwards after last week and into conference play. The Spartans take to the road for the first time this season to face a team that has given them fits recently. The reigning Big Ten West champs from Northwestern await the Spartans on Saturday afternoon, so let’s get to know more about the boys in purple.

School: Northwestern University

Nickname: Wildcats

Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Location: Evanston, IL

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (14th season, 97-71 overall)

Record: 1-1 (0-0 in Big Ten)

Mascot: Willie the Wildcat

All Time Series: Michigan State leads 38-16, Northwestern has won the last three

This was the game last year where the concern really started to creep in as Northwestern was once again able to dink and dunk MSU to death and the Spartan offense struggled against what would turn out to be a pretty good Northwestern team before year’s end. This Northwestern squad has some holdovers from last year, but doesn’t look to be up to the same level of some past squads under Pat Fitzgerald.

Team Stats

First off we have to preface all of these numbers with the fact that Northwestern has played only two games so far, so the sample size is even smaller than it is for MSU. But even so, the numbers aren’t great for the Cats.

Northwestern is currently 117th in the country in scoring offense, averaging 18.5 points per game. They scored seven against Stanford in their opener, and 30 last week against UNLV (who is 102nd in scoring defense).

From a yards perspective, it’s not much better. The Wildcats are 112th in total offense averaging 325.5 yards per game, and 110th in yards per play.

The passing offense for Northwestern is 122nd in yards averaging 141 yards per game, and is 123rd in yards per attempt. They have one touchdown against three interceptions, which has led to them having the second worst team passer rating in the country.

They have had some success running the ball, checking in at 52nd nationally at 184.5 yards per game, and 67th overall with an average of 4.45 yards per carry. However, the bulk of that (75% of their total rushing yards), came last week against UNLV. In week one against Stanford the Wildcats rushed for just 93 yards on 2.82 yards per carry. Stanford is 62nd in rushing defense, while UNLV is 95th nationally.

The scoring defense has been good for Northwestern, coming in at 29th overall with an average of 15.5 points per game. Again, they have played two games against teams ranking 103rd and 71st in scoring.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of yardage NW is 53rd in the country allowing 347.5 yards per game, and 59th in yards per play.

The Wildcats are 28th in total pass defense, allowing 176.5 yards per game, and 32nd in yards per pass attempt. They check in at 38th in opponent passer rating and have allowed one TD while picking off one pass.

Again for reference, UNLV is 121st in passing offense and Stanford is 71st.

Against the run the Wildcats have allowed 171 yards per game, which is 86th nationally. The yards per attempt numbers are worse, with the Cats allowing 4.56 yards per attempt, 93rd in the country.

They can get after the quarterback though, racking up seven sacks through two games for an average of 3.5 sacks per game, 19th best in the country.

Players to Watch

Hunter Johnson is your quarterback for the Wildcats, but he was not the original choice. TJ Green started the season but was hurt against Stanford, so Johnson is the guy going forwards.

The numbers haven’t been great for the sophomore. He is completing just 42.9% of his passes and has one TD against three INTs. He is at just 5.2 yards per attempt, which for reference is 2.2 yards per attempt less than Brian Lewerke. Johnson does have 22 carries for 68 yards so he is a threat to take off, so hopefully MSU learned their lesson on that after last week.

Sophomore Isaiah Bowser was the team’s leading rusher a year ago, but suffered an injury in the season opener against Stanford and didn’t play last week against UNLV. If he doesn’t play this week, expect freshman Drake Anderson to handle the bulk of the carries. Anderson has 146 yards and a touchdown on 5.21 yards per carry.

In the passing game, Bennett Skowronek leads the way with nine catches for 110 yards. The senior was the team’s second leading receiver last year.

The deep threat appears to be JJ Jefferson who has the Cats only receiving TD and is averaging 23 yards on his three catches.

On defense, linebacker Paddy Fisher was first-team All-Big Ten (coaches) a year ago piling up 117 tackles. He is third on the team so far with 14 tackles, and also has the only interception. Fellow linebacker Chris Bergin leads the team with 20 stops so far.

Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano was second-team All-Big Ten (coaches) last year piling up a team leading 12.5 TFL’s and 7.5 sacks. On the young season Gaziano has 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks thus far.

Junior defensive back JR Pace is currently sixth on the team in tackles and led Northwestern with four interceptions last year.