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Northwestern vs. Michigan State preview: Three matchups to watch

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This article is not just Michigan State vs. Justin Jackson.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Northwestern won 17-10 in overtime over Iowa. Now, the Northwestern Wildcats hosts a ranked team in the Michigan State Spartans. Michigan State has not lost a conference game and won tight contest at Indiana last week. Let’s take a look at what matchups to watch for this weekend.

MSU Quarterback Brian Lewerke vs. NU Front 7

Although Lewerke’s passing game hasn’t been stunning, he has an explosive running game that matches the Spartan’s classically run-heavy offense. The sophomore is completing 59.4 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, but considering he’s thrown for fewer than 200 yards in each of the past three weeks, his running ability is his forte. With 66 carries for 313 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry, and four rushing touchdowns, the young quarterback has earned himself a Total QBR ranking of 36th in the country.

Luckily for Northwestern, the Wildcats’ rush defense has improved greatly. The Wildcats rank 25th in the country in this department, with an average of 3.34 yards allowed per rush (20th in rushing defense S&P as well). The defense totaled eight tackles for loss against Iowa last weekend, bringing their total tackles for loss on the season to 55 and their total tackles for loss national ranking to 13th. As for total defense, NU is ranked 46th in the country, with the front seven led by redshirt freshman MIKE Paddy Fisher and SAM junior Nate Hall – each of whom had 9 total tackles against the Hawkeyes. If the defense continues to hold up like they have against big-time rush offenses, they might be able to contain Lewerke.

Justin Jackson vs. MSU Front 7

This is no surprise, but after Jackson proved his worth yet again with his overtime heroics against Iowa, he has to be mentioned. The senior running back ranks 44th in the country with 603 yards on the season and recently broke Northwestern’s all-time rushing yards record during the campaign against Maryland. Jackson has had over 90 rushing yards – including three 100+ yard games – in every win the Wildcats have had this season. When he didn’t, NU lost every time.

Therefore, whether Michigan State’s rush defense – which ranks 6th in the country in S&P - will be able to stop Jackson will be a crucial determinant of this game. The Spartans’ rush defense has only allowed 2.89 yards per rush and five total rush touchdowns. A large part of that success is sophomore MIKE Joe Bachie, who, after MSU faced Indiana, was named the Big Ten co-defensive player of the week and named to Pro Football Focus’ national team of the week defense. He also received solo defensive player of the week honors after the Spartans beat Michigan. Bachie is tied for second in the Big Ten and leads MSU with 63 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and 6.5 tackles for loss. Both he and Jackson have put up impressive numbers and this matchup will certainly test both of their abilities.

Hunter Niswander vs. MSU Punt Returners

This one may seem unusual, but the senior punter has been a huge part of the Wildcats’ success lately, particularly in their overtime win against Iowa last weekend. Northwestern has struggled to complete solid offensive drives—falling short of the end zone each attempt of the first half against Iowa. Niswander stepped up in a huge way, starting Iowa off in tough field position drive after drive. The senior earned his first career Special Teams Player of the Week honor with five punts for 254 yards. He averaged 50.8 yards per punt - which was the highest single-game average by any Big Ten punter this season - and downed three punts inside the 20-yard. One of those was an 80-yarder which tied for the fourth-longest punt in program history.

Niswander hasn’t been very consistent, but because this game is setting up to be a defensive slugfest, he could play a big role in this game. If he can back up his performance against Iowa, he will be a huge asset to the Wildcats this weekend. Michigan State’s leading punt returner, sophomore wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr., averages only 3.3 yards on six returns for a total of 20 yards. If those numbers are similar on both ends this weekend, Niswander could create a challenge for the Spartans’ offense and special teams units.