The Michigan State Spartans and Northwestern Wildcats kick off the 2021 season on Friday night in Evanston, going right into Big Ten Conference play.
Much like Michigan State, Northwestern has a lot of new student-athletes expected to step into bigger roles in 2021. To help us get perspective on Northwestern’s side, we spoke with Daniel Olinger, the editor-in-chief at Inside NU — SB Nation’s invaluable website for all things Northwestern athletics.
What should we expect from Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson? Will the Wildcats compete for another division championship in 2021? Daniel answers these questions and more.
1. Northwestern lost a lot of talent from its 2020 Big Ten West Division championship team. Much like Michigan State, a lot of new players will need to step up in 2021. Who are some players you expect to make an impact for the Wildcats who Michigan State fans may not be too familiar with?
You’re absolutely right that a lot of new players need to step up. The entire offense is composed of players who didn’t see the field for any meaningful snaps last year, save for three offensive lineman and a tight end (Charlie Mangieri) who got some run as a backup. The under the radar name to watch out for is Stephon Robinson Jr., the transfer wideout from Kansas who had a lot of good production his last year with the Jayhawks. Given he’s the only pass catcher with an established reputation on this roster, I’d expect that he gets a lot of targets thrown his way early on.
Other than him, there’s Evan Hull, who steps in as the starting running back following the season ending injury to Cam Porter. Hull hasn’t gotten action in many games during his time in Evanston, but he’s had two rollicking performances when he has been given a chance, and given the fact that NU has two all-conference level offensive linemen in Peter Skoronski and Sam Gerak, Hull could bust a few big runs over that left side of the line.
2. Hunter Johnson was named the starting quarterback for the season opener against Michigan State. Were Northwestern fans surprised Johnson got the nod over Ryan Hilinski? What does Johnson bring to the table for the Wildcats?
Surprised is putting it lightly. I, for one, was shocked, as Hilinski leaving for NU after a half decent season as a full-time starter at South Carolina seemed like a clear indicator that he’d been given a soft promise for the job. But to his credit, Pat Fitzgerald remained consistent throughout the summer that the job was open, and low and behold Hunter Johnson went out and grabbed it.
As for what he brings, Johnson is much more of a dual threat than Hilinski, providing a slightly higher floor for the offense with his ability to create out of structure at the very least. He also has the arm strength to most every throw, it’s just the reliability of his accuracy and decision making that needs work after what he showed in 2019.
3. What are your expectations for Northwestern this season and why?
I predicted a 7-5 record and I could honestly be talked into 6-6. I generally fall on the pessimistic side of the spectrum when it comes to projecting both teams I cover and root for (Go Eagles, 2-15 soon come), but I just don’t know how much you can expect out of a team that returns so little, even if what they return are some of their very best players.
Now, they also enter 2021 with an easy schedule and a pretty nice on-boarding ramp to the season, with a 6-0 start well within the realm of possibility. However, I just don’t think they have the horses this year to run with the upper echelon teams of the division, so a return to the typical above average baseline that Fitzgerald has instilled during his tenure in Evanston seems most likely to me.
4. Michigan State leads the all-time series 39-20. And with that said, Michigan State often seems to have Northwestern’s number, whether it was the 2006 games where the Spartans scored 38 consecutive points to complete the biggest comeback in NCAA history to win, or the 2020 game when a then 5-0 Wildcats team was upset by an underdog Spartans team in East Lansing. However, Northwestern also recently beat Michigan State three times in a row in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Do Northwestern fans look at the Spartans as a sort of rival at all? What is the general feeling of the fan base when it comes to MSU, especially after last season?
I wouldn’t say Northwestern fans view Northwestern as a rival, per se. That designation is reserved for Io_a (yes that spelling is intentional) and Illinois (HAT). What they have for MSU is a healthy level of respect on the football field, viewing the post-2015 playoff Spartans as a relative equal in terms of ability. However, that all goes out the door this season, as the fan base is hungry for vengeance following the ruining of their dream season in 2020. Be warned, Michigan State (I think?).
5. Northwestern recently lost running back Cam Porter for the season. How will the Wildcats replace his production? Also, do you expect the offense or the defense to be more ready to play in the season opener (which unit looks more prepared)?
As I mentioned above, Evan Hull is a dependable fill-in option, not to mention Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair offers some enticing speed and wide-running options, while true freshman Anthony Tyus II has gotten a vast amount of hype due to his towering build.
As for which unit comes in more ready to go, it’s pretty easily the defense. This is a Fitzgerald-coached Northwestern team for Pete’s sake. The defense will still be very good.
6. Who wins the Michigan State versus Northwestern game and final score prediction?
To me, at least, Michigan State is still very much in the mode of rebuilding the program, and Northwestern would sooner jump into a freezing cold Lake Michigan than overlook the team that upended them last year. Give me Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17.
Thank you to Daniel for answering my questions and providing great insights and analysis. You can follow Dan on Twitter, and to keep up with the Wildcats ahead of Friday’s contest, follow Inside NU as well.
If you are interested in my responses to Daniel’s questions, head over to Inside NU.