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The Only Questions: Q&A with Northwestern

Get to know the Wildcats

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

EAST LANSING — Saturday’s game will be the 58th meeting between Michigan State and Northwestern.

MSU leads the all-time series 37-20 and has won 19 in Evanston.

Dantonio is also 4-1 against the Wildcats at Ryan Field. Although, it’s been awhile since MSU has been on the right side of things, having lost three in a row to NW and are hoping to snap the losing streak this weekend.

Today, we’ve brought in Noah Coffman, from Inside NU, to help Spartan fans prep for kickoff.

Last season the Wildcats won the Big Ten West and went to the B1G Championship game against Ohio State. Sure, they lost, but they also went to the Holiday Bowl and beat Utah 31-20. Where do see Northwestern going this year? What were your preseason goals? Why?

Northwestern should once again be one of the favorites in the Big Ten West. After last season’s success, expectations would typically ramp up a bit, but this team has turned over veteran pieces in plenty of crucial areas, so most fans would be satisfied (at least this season) with significant competition for the divisional crown, though some are looking for a repeat trip to Indy or bust.

Personally, with what is shaping up to be a really difficult schedule (especially to start off conference play), I would be happy with six Big Ten wins. This team has the ability to head back to Indianapolis, but with the maelstrom that is the West division it would be tough to call that scenario likely.

Will the Spartans face Isaiah Bowser this weekend? What can you tell Spartan Nation about freshman Drake Anderson? He broke out against UNLV rushing for 141 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown. Will he be a factor against MSU’s run defense?

Bowser is officially back! The injury report, released late Thursday night, only mentioned the absence of starting cornerback Trae Williams (who will still serve as another key loss). If Jesse Brown plays, which we can’t be sure of since Northwestern only lists injuries for members of the two-deep and Brown, nominally the third-down back, is not officially Bowser’s backup, Anderson, son of former Northwestern star Damien Anderson, might be the third option at tailback.

That doesn’t mean he won’t get a couple of chances, but it’s tough to see him breaking out the way he did last Saturday. All in all, the Wildcats, though their offensive line does look very solid thus far, will struggle to move the ball regardless of who is carrying the load against a front like that of MSU. Still, though, expect to see mostly Bowser out of the backfield with a bit of Brown and Anderson, the smallest and quickest of the three, sprinkled in.

UNLV v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Who is more important to his teams’ success on Saturday? Brian Lewerke or Hunter Johnson? Why?

It’s really tough to say, just because of how critical a role that quarterbacks play in general, but I’m leaning towards Johnson. Despite his 0-3 record against the ‘Cats, Lewerke has put in some really nice performances in those games, but with Northwestern’s run defense more of a question mark than it has been in recent years, he may not be as central to the matchup as Johnson.

Meanwhile, against an elite run defense, Johnson and Northwestern’s receiving corps will be leaned on heavily. In addition to that, he is a featured part of the run game, via read options, designed keepers, and the odd scramble, so he could key each phase. Though Johnson is still experiencing growing pains, he looked more confident against UNLV, being let down by his pass-catchers on some gorgeous deep balls down the stretch. Wildcat fans will be hoping he carries that improved performance into Saturday.

Give us one guy MSU fans need to look out for on defense and why?

Joe Gaziano is a name that probably continues to strike fear into the hearts of some Michigan State fans, and he is back for his redshirt senior season. Gaziano, who will be trying to achieve a somewhat-unheard of fourth straight game with a sack of Lewerke (dating back to the famous safety he created in 2016), anchors Northwestern’s pass rush and is a key member of their run defense. As the star defensive end goes, so goes the rest of the Wildcat front, and nowhere was that more apparent than in has 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sack, 1 forced fumble performance against UNLV, for which he earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award. If he makes life difficult for Lewerke, the Spartans will be in for another long day offensively.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Arizona State at Michigan State Photo by Allan Dranberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What are your three keys to victory?

There’s a reason this game’s total is set at 38.5. It’s not likely to be particularly high-scoring. With that said, in order to win, Northwestern must:

- Keep MSU’s offense to field goal tries instead of touchdowns. The Wildcats have been noted for their bend-but-don’t-break style, and they will need to bring that to bear against Lewerke and co. to give their offense a chance, especially if Matt Coghlin continues to struggle.

- Hit a few big plays offensively. Whether it’s via the MSU busted coverage that seems to occur every year in this matchup, or a running back ripping off a huge gain or two out of nowhere, it will be difficult for the Northwestern offense to sustain drives without a few big plays along the way.

- Limit mistakes. This one seems a bit obvious on its face, but after a year in which they were the least-penalized team (by yardage) in the Power 5 conferences, Pat Fitzgerald and NU have struggled to repeat that feat so far in 2019. To win this one, they will have to out-execute the Spartans, both through avoiding silly penalties and winning the (ever-crucial) turnover battle.

Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?

As it has for, really, most of the past decade, the outcome of this one is gonna swing on a few plays. Based on the recent history between these two teams and what the Spartans showed the last two weeks, I have trouble believing that MSU is gonna be the side that makes them.

Northwestern takes it, 20-15.

UNLV v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images