Heading into the 2018 season, expectations were high for the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans, who finished 10-3 after a Holiday Bowl victory. Four weeks in, the Spartans (3-1) dropped nine spots to No. 20 after a crushing loss to an unranked Arizona State team and a few close games against mediocre competition.
Here are three things to know about Northwestern’s Week Six hosts:
The Spartans are injury-ridden, and it shows
As much as Mark Dantonio does not want to use injuries as an excuse for underperforming, the Spartans are undeniably being affected by the loss of some key offensive weapons. Heading into the matchup against Northwestern, Michigan State is missing four of its top six wide receivers. In Saturday’s matchup against Central Michigan, wide receiver Cody White, who has 20 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns on the season, broke his left hand while diving for the ball and will be out for at least a few weeks if not longer. The Spartans already lost three other wide receivers in starter Darrell Stewart Jr. and top reserves Jalen Nailor and Cam Chambers before Saturday’s matchup.
“It would be easier not having to deal with that. But you know, I’ve never gone and made excuses,” Dantonio said on Sunday. “Sometimes when new guys get an opportunity to play – and I’ve said this over and over – that increases the overall strength of our team.”
The Spartan rushing attack will be featured on Saturday
The depletion of wide receivers could ultimately cause more issues for the Wildcats on Saturday in defending the run-game. Like many other quarterbacks Northwestern has faced, Brian Lewerke poses a dual-threat, which tends to challenge the defense. In last week’s game, Lewerke rushed 8 attempts for 39 yards with 2 rushing touchdowns and will likely have a similar performance this weekend.
The Northwestern front seven had a difficult weekend against Michigan and could not find a way to stop the Wolverines in the second half. Karan Higdon delivered the worst blow with 30 carries for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns.
All of Michigan State’s touchdowns last week were scored off rushing plays, so the Northwestern defense will have to step up.
MSU’s run defense is one of the best in the nation
Last season, the Spartans finished toward the top of most defensive stat categories and returned almost all of their major weapons. This season, they have only allowed 161 rushing yards, which is the lowest four-game total of any Power Five team since 2008. Defensive back Justin Layne and linebacker Joe Bachie have led the Spartans’ defense this season with 22 and 21 solo tackles, respectively.
In last season’s matchup against Michigan State, Northwestern was stifled by the Spartans’ rush defense and only averaged 2.3 yards per carry. Last week was a similar story against Michigan where the Wildcats finished with only 28 rushing yards after accounting for sacks. A struggling Wildcat offensive line could likely continue to face issues against an impressive rush defense.