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Get to Know the Opponent: Northwestern

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The Wildcats come in undefeated and leading the Big Ten West.

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

After an impromptu bye week last week due to the COVID outbreak at Maryland, the Spartans are back at it this week hosting Big Ten West leader Northwestern. The Wildcats are fresh off a huge win over Wisconsin last week, and Pat Fitzgerald has his sights set on another Big Ten Title Game berth.

School: Northwestern University

Nickname: Wildcats

Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Location: Evanston, IL

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (15th season, 104-79 overall)

Record: 5-0 (5-0 in Big Ten)

Mascot: Willie the Wildcat

All Time Series: Michigan State leads 38-20, MSU won last year, but Northwestern has won four of last six meetings.

Two years ago Northwestern won the West Division and played in the Big Ten Championship for the first time and finished the season 9-5. Last year, they were 3-9 overall and just 1-8 in Big Ten play, a complete reversal from their 8-1 conference record the year before. This year they are off to an undefeated start, so whatever happened last year, they seem to have figured it out.

Team Stats

The Wildcats aren’t going to blow you away offensively, but they are averaging 25.8 points per game. As a Michigan State fan, you long for almost 26 points per game.

On the ground the Cats are at 144 yards per game (80th nationally) and 3.36 yards per carry (106th). Neither of those numbers are particularly impressive and hopefully an area that MSU’s defense can continue to keep in check.

Through the air Northwestern is 100th in the national in total passing offense averaging 192.4 yards per game. They are even worse in yards per attempt at 105th overall with 6.2 yards per attempt. They have eight touchdowns and four picks.

So how are they scoring points then? Well a lot of it has to do with turnovers. The Wildcats are plus-eight in the turnover battle this year, tied for third best in the nation. That has set them up in favorable field position, which they usually cash in on.

In the red zone, Northwestern is at 84.21 percent conversion this year, scoring on 16 of 19 trips and coming away with touchdowns on 12 of those.

Defensively, the Cats have shined this season. They are 15th in the country in total defense, and fourth in scoring defense, allowing just 12.6 points per game. This does not bode well for an MSU team that ranks 123rd in scoring and averages 15.3 points per game.

Northwestern is 13th in the nation in rush defense allowing just over 100 yards per game. They allow 3.52 yards per carry, which is 28th overall, and they have allowed just two rushing touchdowns on the season.

If you think you can get them through the air, that’s not much better. They are 37th in total pass defense, allowing 214 yards per game and best in the nation in yards per attempt at just 4.9 YPA. That is a 0.4 better than the next closest team. As a result of that, and their 11 interceptions, Northwestern is holding opponents to the lowest passer in the country as well.

In addition to those numbers, the Wildcats have the ninth best third down defense (27.27 percent) and the 14th best red zone defense (71.43 percent).

Players to Watch

Senior transfer from Indiana Peyton Ramsey has given the Northwestern offense just enough this year. Ramsey has completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 926 yards on an even six yards per attempt. He has eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He is also the team’s third leading rusher with 128 yards on 3.12 yards per carry.

The team has used a couple of running backs alongside Ramsey in the backfield. Junior Isaiah Bowser leads the team in carries and is second with 184 yards. Bowser also has seven catches for 41 yards and a touchdown.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore Drake Anderson has a team high 211 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He has caught three passes for 25 yards out of the backfield.

Senior receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman leads the team with 22 receptions, 290 yards, and four touchdowns. He averages over 13 yards per catch.

He is joined in the team lead in catches with fellow senior Kyric McGowan, who has 213 yards and averages 9.68 yards per catch. McGowan is also averaging 27 yards per return as the team’s kickoff return man.

Teams also need to watch out for tight end John Raine in the passing game. Raine has 14 receptions for 122 yards and a score.

On defense senior linebacker Paddy Fisher is about as good as it gets. Fisher has 46 tackles, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that he took back 22 yards the other way. He makes it all work for the Northwestern defense.

Eku Leota leads the team with four sacks and is second with five tackles for loss. The other senior linebacker Blake Gallagher leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss, has two sacks, an interception, and a team high 48 tackles.

Speaking of interceptions, freshman Brandon Joseph leads the nation with five interceptions. Probably best not to throw in his direction too often.

In the kicking game, senior place kicker Charlie Kuhbander is six-for-eight in field goal attempts and 15-for-15 on extra points. Senior punter Derek Adams is averaging over 40 yards per punt as well.

Ok, that’s Northwestern for you. Not a great matchup for Michigan State and likely another one of those ugly games that the Spartans often find themselves in. The defense could keep them in the game, but the offense is going to need to figure out how to move the ball against a really good defense.