A big win over Iowa put Northwestern over .500 for the first time since Week 3. On Saturday, the Wildcats host Michigan State at Ryan Field in what is likely Northwestern’s toughest matchup for the rest of the season. After a disastrous season in 2016, the Spartans (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) are already bowl-eligible, and are looking to join Penn State and Ohio State in the conversation for Big Ten East contenders. Here are three things to know about Michigan State:
Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the nation
After giving up 38 points to Notre Dame in their lone loss of the season, Michigan State has held opponents to 10 points or less in three of their past four games. Perhaps most impressive was a 14-10 victory over seventh-ranked Michigan at the Big House, in which the Spartans forced five turnovers. Central to that effort was linebacker Joe Bachie, who led the team with ten tackles, and recorded a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble en route to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. The sophomore leads an impressive linebackers unit that also features Andrew Dowell and Chris Frey.
Michigan State’s defense ranks fourth in the country in yards per game and third in defensive S&P+. While the Spartans have forced 11 turnovers this season, the defense isn’t especially great at creating havoc. The unit’s strength rests in its ability to force passing downs (the Spartans are fifth in the nation in first down S&P+ and 10th in second down S&P+) and create difficult situations for opposing offenses. It could be a long day for Clayton Thorson and Co.
Sparty’s offense looks a lot like Northwestern’s
Michigan State’s defense forced nine punts against Indiana on Saturday. Sparty’s offense struggled to take advantage, punting eight times themselves. It took two late touchdown drives for Michigan State to pull out a 17-9 victory, in which it amassed 274 yards of total offense and gained two yards per carry.
The Spartans have hit the twenty point mark once in Big Ten play, on the back of a huge performance from LJ Scott against Minnesota. The offense has struggled mightily in three other conference matchups, with a profile that looks eerily similar to Northwestern’s. The Wildcats rank 92nd in offensive S&P+ while Michigan State sits at 90th.
Michigan State’s offense has had trouble making big plays. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is averaging 6.7 yards per passing attempt, and the longest pass play of the year is a whopping 40 yards. Scott and backfield partner Madre London have been relatively efficient, but Michigan State’s rushing attack is closer to Iowa’s than it is to Wisconsin’s.
The Spartans are young, but talented
Following a brutal season on and off the field, Michigan State returned five starters in 2017. A younger crop of Spartans have had the chance to prove themselves, and the team starts 13 freshmen or sophomores. Youngsters have made the biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball, led by Bachie, a sophomore who mans the MIKE position. Michigan State’s best defensive lineman is Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with eight tackles for loss. On the other side of the ball, true freshman Cody White has shown promise at receiver. A former three-star recruit, White led the Spartans in receptions (six) and yards (99) last week.