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Game Preview: Northwestern Wildcats vs. Michigan State Spartans in 2021 season opener

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 college football season is finally here. After quite possibly the strangest football season of all-time (and perhaps the strangest period of time in the entire world, for that matter) due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, things will look a lot more normal in 2021 with marching bands, cheerleaders, fans back in the stands and many other elements of a typical college football game experience. With that said, the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on, and the Delta variant of the virus certainly could still significantly change how things play out this fall.

The Michigan State Spartans begin the season in Big Ten Conference play this Friday in Evanston, Illinois against the Northwestern Wildcats. The prime-time game will be held at Ryan Field and will kick off at approximately 9:15 Eastern Time (8:15 Central Time) and broadcast on ESPN.

Northwestern enters the contest coming off of a Big Ten West Division championship and appearance in the Big Ten Championship game (losing to Ohio State). Michigan State, meanwhile, is coming off a disappointing 2-5 season, but did upset the Wildcats last season. However, both teams have vastly different rosters compared to 2020.

One of the biggest question marks for Spartans is who will start at quarterback between redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne, and Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo. For Northwestern, Hunter Johnson gets the starting nod at the quarterback position, which is somewhat surprising as most expected South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski to win the job.

Let’s jump into the game preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2020 Record — 2-5 (2-5 in Big Ten)

2020 Offense (per game averages) — 330.3 total yards, 238.86 passing yards, 91.4 rushing yards

2020 Defense (per game averages) — 396.7 total yards allowed, 239.43 passing yards allowed, 157.3 rushing yards allowed

2020 Cumulative Points Scored: 126 (18 ppg)

2020 Cumulative Points Allowed: 246 (35.14 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 51st

2020 Record — 7-2 (6-2 in Big Ten)

2020 Offense (per game averages) — 360.7 total yards, 197.89 passing yards, 162.8 rushing yards

2020 Defense (per game averages) — 341.2 yards allowed, 195.33 passing yards allowed, 145.9 rushing yards allowed

2020 Cumulative Points Scored: 222 (24.67 ppg)

2020 Cumulative Points Allowed: 143 (15.89 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 76th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 39-20
Current streak: Michigan State with a two-game winning streak
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 28, 2020 (29-20)
Last Northwestern Win: Oct. 6, 2018 (29-19)
Michigan State all-time record: 710-470-44 (.598)
Northwestern all-time record: 555-676-44 (.453)

Uniform Watch:

Michigan State will rock white tops with green pants, and the fantastic “State” script design in green appears on the white helmets.

Northwestern will wear a special “gothic” uniform for the opener, with dark tops accented by purple and gold. The helmets will be black with gold outlines on the purple “N” logo…pretty cool, but not quite script “State” cool

Key Matchups

Hunter Johnson/Stephon Robinson Jr. versus Michigan State secondary: It was pretty surprising to see Johnson win the starting spot over Hilinski — even Northwestern fans weren’t expecting it — because he really struggled in 2019. But now in his fourth year with the program (he sat out in 2018), expect the veteran quarterback to be much improved. The former Clemson transfer will face a secondary with a solid core of returning players in Kalon Gervin, Xavier Henderson, Angelo Grose and Michel Dowell, along with transfers Ronald Williams (Alabama) and Chester Kimbrough. I expect all six of those players to play meaningful snaps on Friday, with true freshman Chuck Brantley potentially getting some work as well. The other player in the NU passing game to watch is Kansas transfer wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr., who will likely be Johnson’s top target.

Kenneth Walker III/MSU offensive line versus Northwestern front seven: While head coach Mel Tucker has not explicitly said, and other running backs with certainly get touches, the general expectation is that Walker will lead the backfield on Friday and this season. The Michigan State offensive line has struggled mightily in the run game for the past three or so seasons in a row, while Northwestern was stout against the run last year, allowing 145.9 rushing yards, which ranked 46th in the country. If the offensive line can get a push, Walker can find room on the ground and MSU can control the clock, then that could be the Spartans’ best path to victory — assuming Walker is as advertised.

Jayden Reed/Jalen Nailor verus Northwestern secondary: Reed and Nailor make up a dynamic duo at wide receiver for Michigan State, no matter who is playing quarterback. However, Northwestern was a very good pass defense last year, allowing just 195.3 passing yards per game (19th in FBS) and just 5.2 yards per pass attempt (first in the FBS). The Wildcats also return star safety Brandon Joseph, who was tied for the lead the nation with six interceptions in 2020. The MSU wide receivers going against the NU defensive backs should be a heavyweight battle, and might be the most fun matchup to watch.

Game Info

Time: 9:15 p.m. (Eastern)
TV Channel: ESPN
Location: Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Weather expectations: Partly cloudy with a high around 76 degrees, winds blowing south/southeast at 12 miles per hour
Line: Northwestern -3.5


To be quite frank, I don’t think anybody expects to know how either of these two teams will look to open the season following an unusual amount of roster turnover for both programs. Hell, we don’t even know who is taking the first snap at quarterback for Michigan State. Tucker has kept things close to the vest regarding who is playing where, and not just at the quarterback position. MSU has well over 30 players between transfers and true freshmen and some of those players are going to make an impact, we just aren’t quite sure about the “who” just yet. Northwestern, on the other hand, has lost a lot from its Big Ten West Division-winning team in 2020, but still has plenty of upperclassmen and players who have been in the program for a while.

All of that said, it certainly feels like Michigan State often gets the better of Northwestern, hence almost having double the wins in the all-time series (39-20) and last year’s upset victory over the then undefeated Wildcats squad. But Pat Fitzgerald has built NU into a tough program that competes for championships. Does he have the horses to do it again?

While it’s just the first game of the season, which also happens to immediately kick off Big Ten play and takes place under the prime-time lights, a lot of our questions will be answered by the end of the contest Friday night, but plenty more questions about this MSU team will be answered as the season rolls on.

I expect a close, low-scoring game throughout. Maybe I am being a homer, but I have a pretty good feeling Michigan State pulls out a narrow victory. We will soon find out.

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


Which school wins the 2021 season opener?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Michigan State
    (155 votes)
  • 29%
    (65 votes)
220 votes total Vote Now