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Game Preview: Northwestern Wildcats vs. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We’ve had to wait an extended period of time since we last saw the Michigan State Spartans play a down of football, as last week’s game against Maryland was canceled due to elevated COVID numbers in the Terrapins’ program. This week, though, the Spartans get a chance to take the field against the Northwestern Wildcats at Spartan Stadium, and for the first time this season, will play at 3:30 p.m. (EST).

Northwestern enters the contest with a 5-0 record, and a No. 8 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. NU has an extremely stout defense. This could prove to be a tough matchup for MSU, but with an extra week to prepare for the Wildcats, perhaps we’ll see a rejuvenated Spartans team.

Let’s jump into the game preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2020 Record — 1-3 (1-3 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 323.8 total yards, 250.0 passing yards, 73.8 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 391.5 total yards allowed, 242.25 passing yards allowed, 149.3 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 61 (15.25 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 135 (33.75 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 79th

2020 Record — 5-0 (5-0 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 336.4 total yards, 192.4 passing yards, 144.0 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 314.6 yards allowed, 214.0 passing yards allowed, 100.6 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 129 (25.8 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 63 (12.6 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 28th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 38-20
Current streak: Michigan State with a one-game winning streak
Last Michigan State Win: Sept. 21, 2019 (31-10)
Last Northwestern Win: Oct. 6, 2018 (29-19)
Michigan State all-time record: 709-468-44 (.599)
Northwestern all-time record: 553-674-44 (.452)

Previous Game Results:

Indiana 24, Michigan State 0

Michigan State, as mentioned, did not have a game last week, so we will recap the Indiana game from two weeks ago. I watched this one from the Spartan Stadium press box, and well, it was not pretty, but the defense did play better in the second half — and I’m sure Indiana also took its foot off of the gas pedal a bit — as the Hoosiers took a 24-0 lead into halftime and that wound up being the final score. That was the first time Michigan State had been shut out at home since 1985 — I wasn’t even born until about five years later and the Ronald Reagan administration was in office, so yeah, it had been a while since that happened.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi struggled, throwing two interceptions in seven attempts. He was then benched for redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who flashed his ability on a 38-yard run on his first play from scrimmage, but also had his own struggles. Meanwhile, Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. torched the Spartans for 320 yards and two touchdowns to Ty Fryfogle who had 200 yards receiving. This game likely would have been a lot uglier had Shakur Brown not come up with two clutch interceptions for MSU.

Anyway, on to Northwestern, and for better or worse, it’s neon time:

Northwestern 17, Wisconsin 7

Huge win for the Wildcats, as Northwestern improved to 5-0 and has sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West. The Wildcats’ defense forced five turnovers, including three interceptions, and also had three sacks against the Badgers. The offense did just enough, led by Peyton Ramsey who threw for two touchdowns and did not throw an interception. Wisconsin actually held Northwestern to just 24 rushing yards, and out-gained NU by more than 100 total yards (366-263), but the takeaways that the Wildcats forced was the difference in the game — this does not bode well this weekend for Michigan State, a team that is turnover prone. Northwestern capitalized on its opportunities and pretty much punched its ticket to Indianapolis in a couple of weeks with this victory.

The Wildcats have even bigger aspirations than just a conference championship, too.

Key Matchups

Ramand Chiaokhiao-Bowman versus Shakur Brown (or whatever Michigan State DB is covering him): While Northwestern’s defense is much scarier than its offense, Chiaokhiao-Bowman has been a playmaker at wide receiver for the Wildcats — especially over the past two games. His combined total over the past two weeks are 12 catches for 181 yards and four touchdowns — with three of those scores coming against Purdue. Overall on the season Chiaokhiao-Bowman has 23 catches for 293 yards and the four touchdowns. Shakur Brown, on the other hand, has been Michigan State’s best coverage cornerback with three interceptions and a Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 83.2. I am not sure if Kalon Gervin or Chris Jackson will return to the lineup this week or not after missing the Indiana game, but if not Brown will have to step up in the secondary once again, and if they do return, Brown may still be the best option against Chiaokhiao-Bowman.

The team that runs the football better will likely win: I reference the importance of the offensive lines and defensive lines in some form or fashion in this section pretty much every week because the trenches is where the game is won and lost. The Spartans have been awful running the football — averaging just 73.8 yard per game and 2.2 yards per carry. The offensive line’s advanced run blocking metrics rank toward the bottom of the entire country. Northwestern has fared better overall, averaging 144 rush yards per game and 3.4 yards per attempt, but still isn’t great at it. As mentioned, Wisconsin absolutely shut down the Wildcats on the ground, holding them to 24 net yards on 23 carries. MSU should study the tape on those running plays and look to copy the formula that Wisconsin had success with, and offensively, needs to find a way to get the running game going — even against Northwestern’s incredibly stout rushing defense, which gives up just 3.5 yards per attempt.

Northwestern linebackers versus Michigan State offense: Northwestern has a trio of incredibly smart and physical linebackers in Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Michigan native, Chris Bergin. Fisher and Gallagher in particular could wreck the game for the Spartans. Fisher, a four-year starter, just always seems to be near the ball with 46 total tackles, including three tackles for loss and a forced fumble in five games. Gallagher’s stats look even better with 48 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks a forced fumble and an interception. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is going to have to game plan around these guys and use MSU’s speed to get to the outside and run past these thumpers.

Game Info

Time: 3:30 p.m. (Eastern)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Sunny, with a high around 46 degrees, winds blowing west/southwest at 10-15 miles per hour
Line: Northwestern -13.5


Admittedly, this looks like an awful matchup on paper for Michigan State. Northwestern’s defense is imposing and the Spartans are going to struggle to move the ball. The Wildcats are also a much more experienced team, starting several seniors and redshirt seniors across the board. Its offense is not going to hang 40 points often (unless you’re Maryland, I guess), but is led by efficient play from graduate student Peyton Ramsey and score just enough points to win. The difference in this game will certainly come down to turnover margin and success in the running game. Michigan State cannot afford to give the ball away, or this game won’t even be particularly close.

For some reason, though, I have a feeling this game will be much more competitive than many people may think. It’s going to take a perfect game from Michigan State to pull the upset, but with essentially two weeks to prepare, if the focus is what it was for Michigan week, it can be done. This means, winning the turnover battle (and preferably no turnovers from the offense), generating a takeaway or two on defense, having no miscommunications between the quarterback and wide receivers, running the football efficiently and winning the field position battle.

We still don’t know whether or not Payton Thorne or Rocky Lombardi will draw the start for the Spartans (my guess is Thorne), but regardless of who is at quarterback, the Spartans have to be able to move the ball and sustain drives. With two fairly stout defenses, I honestly don’t think the winning offense will needs to put up too many points — 20 to 24 should do it. Then again, I thought the same thing about the Iowa game.

Basically, it’s going to take laser focus, a non-stop effort and some luck for Michigan State to beat Northwestern. But, stranger things have happened.

For additional thoughts on Northwestern, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, and read over our Q&A with Inside NU.


Who wins?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Michigan State
    (18 votes)
  • 67%
    (37 votes)
55 votes total Vote Now