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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Michigan State

The Spartans are tough, especially defensively, but the Wildcats seem to have their number.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Northwestern at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Historically, Sparty has owned Northwestern in football, winning 37 of 57 meetings. However, those days feel like they were centuries ago, with NU riding a three-game win streak over the teams’ last three meetings. Should we expect NU to keep rolling, or for MSU to finally get back to their dominance? As always, we will be giving you some of the reasoning behind each potential result:


The Wildcats may have a two(or even three)-headed monster in the backfield

If Isaiah Bowser and Jesse Brown are healthy (knock on wood), the variety present in Northwestern’s running game could make it stronger than it has been in a couple of seasons. Bowser, who averaged 4.4 YPC last year, and had 54 yards on ten carries before going down against Stanford, will obviously continue to be the bell-cow back if he returns. But with the absence of the prototypical downfield runner, Drake Anderson and Jesse Brown showcased their ability on Saturday.

In a breakout game against UNLV, Anderson took 26 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown, giving older NU fans flashbacks to his father, Damien. Meanwhile, before he, too, succumbed to injury, Brown ripped off 79 yards on just seven totes, after displaying his ability in the passing game in Week 1. Anderson should be able to use his speed to make plays, while Brown, if he returns, will serve as a reliable back in any situation. On the other side, NU will hopefully have a chance to control the tempo of the game with Bowser’s consistency and strength on the ground.

Brian Lewerke can’t beat the ‘Cats

A lot can be said about MSU senior quarterback Brian Lewerke. While plenty of people will defend him, one thing that inarguably is a red marker on #14’s resume is that he simply cannot beat Northwestern. In 2016 he turned in an up-and-down performance in an NU blowout, and in 2017 he threw for a record-setting 445 yards and four touchdowns...but threw a game-losing interception to Nate Hall in triple overtime.

Finally, last year, Lewerke posted his worst numbers against the ‘Cats in another Northwestern win. There are many explanations for hiss inability to beat NU, ranging from a consistently tough opposing defense all the way to simple bad luck, but regardless, it’s a hump Lewerke just hasn’t gotten over. Coming off of another good-on-paper (but not good enough) outing in a loss to Arizona State, there are plenty of doubts surrounding the QB this time around, too.

Hunter found his swag

Overall, Hunter Johnson’s 2019 stats aren’t great so far. His QBR is a measly 15 (though it is a difficult number to extrapolate from after just two outings), and even in what seemed like a dominant win over UNLV, he was 12 for 25 with one interception. However, his final lines don’t tell the full story.

Against Stanford, Johnson split time with now injured TJ Green, and even then, it was his first game in nearly two years. Against UNLV, he made a few relatively bad throws, one of which was picked off in the endzone. However, he also made some phenomenal throws, three of which were dropped by his receivers 20+ yards downfield.

He looked more confident, especially down the stretch. He started throwing the ball downfield. And he threw it well. Johnson found his swagger, and showed that he can be the 5-star QB that people thought he would be. Going into the MSU game, he may well build on a solid performance and, in the process, begin to take the Big Ten by storm.


MSU’s insane defense

Northwestern put up 441 yards of offense against a glorified D2 school in UNLV, and 210 yards against a now-struggling Stanford team. NU’s offensive play, averaging out to 4.82 yards per play and 325.5 per game, won’t be nearly enough as is to get anything done against a tough Spartan defense. Currently, MSU is allowing only 3.77 yards per play and 216 yards per game to their opponents.

Their dominant defense, especially against the run, just won’t allow the ‘Cats to put up very many points.

Receiving Difficulties

It doesn’t matter how well Johnson throws the ball if his pass-catchers can’t make the plays for him. Across the first two games, Wildcat receivers and superbacks have struggled to consistently get open, and even when they do, some key drops have stalled drives. Northwestern needs their superbacks to get involved and their receivers to be more consistent if they want to take advantage of a pass defense that, while solid, is not close to as strong as MSU is (and has been consistently) on the ground.

Problems with the little things

There’s a reason that the over/under for this game opened at 38.5. And in any low-scoring Big Ten slugfest, the team who makes the fewest crucial mistakes often wins. Traditionally under Pat Fitzgerald, that team has been Northwestern. But in the first two weeks, the Wildcats have committed many more penalties than usual on each side of the ball. At the same time, their kicking game (especially kickoffs, which have been disastrous), remains a bit of a question mark.

These may seem like small concerns, but if Northwestern isn’t firing on all cylinders, all it will take is a couple of bad breaks for this one to go the other way.