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Get To Know the Opponent: Northwestern

The Spartans open up the season with a cross-division B1G foe.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is officially upon us, and a full year (hopefully) lies ahead. The Spartans open things up a little differently than usual, starting the season with a road conference game at Northwestern. MSU upset the 15th-ranked Wildcats last season, handing them their first loss of the year. It would be nice to do the same again to start the 2021 season.

School: Northwestern University

Nickname: Wildcats

Conference: Big Ten (West Division)

Location: Evanston, Illinois

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (16th season, 106-81 overall)

Record (Last year): 7-2

Mascot: Willie the Wildcat

All Time Series: Michigan State leads 39-20, MSU has won the last two meetings after losing three in a row.

Northwestern won the Big Ten West for the second time last season, before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. The Wildcats were able to rebound and win the Citrus Bowl over Auburn to close out a very good season.

It has been a bit of a yo-yo act for Northwestern the last few years, as it has gone from 8-1 to 1-8 and back to 6-1 in conference play. Maybe the Wildcats are on the way down again this year, we will have to wait and see.

Team Stats

The Wildcats may have had a great year last season, but it wasn’t like they were blowing people away on offense. They ranked just 92nd in the nation in scoring at 24.7 points per game.

On the ground Northwestern was a middle of the road team, averaging 162.78 yards per game. However, NU averaged just 3.72 yards per carry, which was 97th overall.

Through the air it was more of the same. A 95th-ranked total passing offense that averaged less than 200 yards per game along with a 6.3 yard per attempt average (100th) and a 91st-ranked team passer rating.

This is part of the reason the Wildcats had no real chance to compete with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Defensively, it is a totally different story. Northwestern was fifth in the nation last year in scoring defense, allowing just 15.9 points per game.

On the ground, the Wildcats were 46th in the country, allowing an average of 145.89 yards per game. They weren’t as good in yards per carry though, where they ranked 74th allowing 4.45 YPC. But they did keep teams out of the end zone, allowing just five rushing touchdowns all year, good for a tie for fifth in the country.

Through the air, teams averaged just 195.3 yards per game (19th overall). The Wildcats actually led the nation in defensive yards per pass attempt, allowing just 5.2 yards per pass. This, combined with 14 interceptions, is why the Northwestern defense allowed the lowest opponent passer rating in the country.

Players to Watch

Senior Hunter Johnson will get the start at quarterback for Northwestern. Johnson appeared in six games for the Wildcats as a sophomore in 2019 when he threw for 432 yards with a 46.3 pecent completion percentage. He had one touchdown and four interceptions. He also ran the ball 48 times for 64 yards (1.33 YPC) and had a touchdown.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think Johnson is going to come out slinging the ball all over the field, but then again, Northwestern doesn’t normally do that anyway.

Evan Hull is listed as the starter at running back, following a season-ending injury to Cam Porter. Hull ran the ball 25 times last year for 209 yards, an impressive 8.36 yards per carry. He found the endz one twice on the ground. Hull also caught six passes for 41 yards in the passing game. The Wildcats like to use the running backs out of the backfield in the passing game, so expect to see Hull’s receptions increase this year.

Sophomore wideout Bryce Kirtz is the leading returning receiver. As a freshman last year, Kirtz caught six passes for 67 yards. Senior Berkley Holman is also listed as a starter. He was limited to just two games last season after appearing in 12 games as a sophomore in 2019.

The player with the most career success is graduate transfer Stephon Robinson Jr, who was previously at Kansas. While he was limited to just two games last year, Robinson caught 45 passes for 727 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 with the Jayhawks. He is a shifty slot receiver at just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, so limiting him will be key for MSU.

On defense, Adetomiwa Adebawore returns to the defensive line after having two sacks and six tackles for loss last year.

Safety Brandon Joseph is the leading returning tackler, and also led the nation with six interceptions last season.

On special teams, Charlie Kuhbander is back for a 15th…I mean fifth season as the Northwestern place kicker. Kuhbander is 37-for-43 (72.55 percent) in his career with a long of 55 yards. He has missed just two of his 117 career extra point attempts.

Derek Adams also returns as the punter after averaging 41.82 yards per punt last year.

So there you go. Much like the Spartans, the Wildcats are dealing with quite a bit of roster turnover compared to 2020. The difference is that most of the Northwestern turnover was from graduating seniors that led them to New Year’s Day bowl game last year. I expect this game to have both teams struggling to figure out what they do well early on, and trying to ride that to victory.