Another week of football is upon us, and with that comes matchups to watch. This week, Northwestern will travel to East Lansing to take on the No. 20 Michigan State Spartans. The team is 3-1 with a loss to Arizona State and no meaningful wins. Let’s look at where this battle will be won.
Northwestern’s offense vs. second half ineptitude
It’s actually shocking how poorly the Northwestern offense has performed in the second half of all four of their games thus far. Against every Power 5 team they have played, the Wildcats have scored a grand total of 0 points. Against Akron, the offense accounted for 13 points, and 19 Akron points.
In first halves, Northwestern scored 31 against Purdue, seven against Duke, 21 against Akron, and 17 this past week against Michigan. There is clearly a pressing issue with regards to the progression of the offense as the game goes on. Whether it be a lack of adjustments, faulty adjustments, or just pure fatigue, it needs to be addressed if NU is to salvage the season.
Look at the Michigan game, for example. The opening drive was beautifully constructed, JJ Jefferson earning big-time yards after the catch, Clayton Thorson seemed to be throwing the ball efficiently and the offensive line was able to hold its own. That trend continued into the beginning of the second quarter, and in the second half, all the offensive success that Northwestern was having suddenly vanquished entirely. Not once did they cross midfield.
It’s obvious, but this is a fight that Northwestern needs to conquer if it is going to beat Michigan State. The Spartans represent yet another daunting defense, so NU will have to find a way of ending this second half drought, whatever may be causing it.
Northwestern’s RBs vs. Michigan State’s run defense
This game poses a similar test to last week in terms of team build. Michigan State has a premier run defense in the country, allowing only 161 yards through four games, a record-setting number as per MSU’s twitter.
Kenny Willekes is the highlight of the daunting defensive line. A third-team All-Big Ten honoree last year, Willekes already has 6.5 tackles for loss thus far this year. Raquan Williams is another one to watch. Williams is the anchor of the middle of the line, and has produced 16 tackles, leading the team to its number one ranked run defense.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern will likely go with a mix of John Moten IV and Solomon Vault. The pair accounted for 53 yards on 20 carries last week, and they were largely unable to help the passing attack get some time on the line, in part because they had no room to run. Michigan was able to blitz often as a result. There was no risk of the run game bursting past them, and there was no risk of Thorson burning them. If the running game can produce to an average extent, it will give Thorson a tad more time to throw the ball, in addition to the yardage output it would result in.
Brian Lewerke vs. Northwestern’s secondary
Northwestern’s back seven did a pretty solid job containing Shea Patterson. As the game went on, the defensive line got less and less pressure, which added even more difficulty to the secondary’s task, and the secondary wasn’t able to match it. But, overall, it did a really good job for the majority of the game. Patterson finished with 196 yards and no scores.
Brian Lewerke is a quarterback of similar caliber. Nothing special, but an above-average QB. He’s not had a good year thus far, throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions. Last year against Northwestern, however, Lewerke threw for 445 yards, four touchdowns, and a pick. If he is able to reproduce that output again, considering Northwestern’s offensive capability, it’ll likely result in a win for MSU.
That being said, Michigan State runs the ball more often than it passes, running it 54 percent of the time. However, the Northwestern run defense has been a more reliable point of strength for the team, whereas the secondary has been more of a liability.