The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
The Wildcats will open up their Big Ten slate against Michigan State in Week 4, who fell to Northwestern for the third straight time in 2018 despite boasting the nation’s top-ranked run defense. Clayton Thorson torched the Spartans for 373 yards to lead the ‘Cats to their first win against a ranked team since they beat Michigan State in 3OT the year before. This year, the Spartans will a bulk of what promises to be another elite defensive unit, and with senior quarterback Brian Lewerke returning at full health, they may have a shot at a stronger offense as well.
Returning production: 66 percent (Offense 78 percent, Defense 53 percent)
2018 record: 7-6 (5-4 B1G)
Coach: Mark Dantonio (twelfth season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2018 S&P+ Overall: 30th
2018 S&P+ Offense: 112th
2018 S&P+ Defense: 2nd
The Spartans started off the 2018 season relatively strong, going 3-1 to start the season before losing to Northwestern. From then on, they pretty much went back and forth between wins and losses, finishing 7-6 on the year with an embarrassing loss in the Redbox Bowl. During Big Ten play, Ohio State and Michigan handily beat the Spartans, but Dantonio’s team came out on top against Purdue, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland.
They also suffered two losses in which each team scored less than 10 points (exciting!) — one against Nebraska in the regular season and one against Oregon in the RedBox Bowl.
Cornerback Justin Layne and safety Khari Willis were both drafted after the 2018 season, continuing Michigan State’s 79-year streak of draftees. After the draft, linebacker Andrew Dowell, wide receiver Felton Davis III, tight end Matt Sokol and running back LJ Scott all reported signing free-agent deals as well.
I mean, it can’t be any worse than last season.
The Spartans saw a tough year with an offense ranked 125th out of 129th in scoring. A string of injuries kept their lineup in a constant rotation, with inexperienced players stepping in to replace starters that were not at full health.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke struggled with a serious shoulder injury for the majority of the 2018 season, and it showed. Lewerke completed just 54 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions. This is especially bad compared to his 2017 season, when he broke multiple MSU records, throwing for 20 touchdowns and becoming the first Spartan to throw for at least 400 yards in back-to-back games.
The departure of wide receiver Felton Davis III should please the ears of all Wildcat fans as he was a nightmare for the NU secondary in the last two matchups, but returners like Darrell Stewart and Cody White will still be solid options for Lewerke. In terms of replacing running back LJ Scott, Connor Heyward is likely to lead the group. In 2018, Heyward led MSU in rushing yards (529), rushing touchdowns (5) and carries (118).
The 2018 Michigan State defense was dominant once again, particularly against the run as they led the nation allowing a mere 77.9 rushing yards per game. Though this defense returns a majority of its players, it will be tough to replicate the stats the unit produced last season. They were on another level in 2018, allowing only 17.2 points and 303.2 total yards per game.
The main losses from the stifling 2018 squad are Justin Layne, Andrew Dowell and Khari Willis. However, linebacker Joe Bachie will return with Tyriq Thompson, and with a defensive line that includes end Kenny Willekes and tackle Raequan Williams, the Spartan defense should be looking at another successful year.
Three Players to Know
Kenny Willekes, DE
The Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year is an obvious choice. Willekes had a killer junior season, ranking first in the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss and being named first team All-Big Ten. A walk-on, he was the first ever Spartan defensive end to be named team MVP. He suffered a broken fibula in the RedBox Bowl against Oregon at the end of the 2018 season but is expected to be fully recovered and ready to impress again this year.
Brian Lewerke, QB
Lewerke is expected to spearhead the Spartan offense this year, but his success depends on whether or not he is able to bounce back after his 2018 season. Coach Dantonio seemed optimistic when he commented on Lewerke’s status at the Big Ten media days. As long as he resembles that of his 2017 self instead of his 2018 self, Lewerke could prove to be a key playmaker for the Spartans this year.
Joe Bachie, LB
Bachie will return as captain for his final season after leading the team in total tackles (102) for the second year in a row. He also leads active Spartans in career tackles with 214. For obvious reasons, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after his junior season and was recently named a preseason All-American by ESPN.com. As a key leader of the MSU defense, he is bound to continue his legacy as a defensive weapon this season.