Following a win against Wisconsin that vaulted Northwestern to become the clear favorite to win the Big Ten West, the ‘Cats will travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State this weekend. The Spartans are coming off a quasi-bye week after their matchup with Maryland was canceled due to the Terrapins’ COVID outbreak.
These two teams have a history, and MSU looks to beat Northwestern on Spartan turf for the first time since 2009. Here are three things to know about NU’s Week Six opponent:
First-year head coach Mel Tucker is struggling
After a drama-filled offseason that ended with longtime Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio’s retirement in February, Mel Tucker, former head coach at the University of Colorado, stepped in as his replacement to start this season. Expectations for Tucker were not particularly high considering the loss of a number of key starters on both sides of the ball, but even with lowered standards, things have not gone well for Tucker so far in his first year in East Lansing.
For starters, Michigan State is 1-3. They opened their season with a loss to Rutgers and have gotten thrashed in their past two games, scoring fewer points every week since the start of the season.
Frankly, it just doesn’t seem as though Tucker’s team has bought into his philosophy, with two players opting out this week and two more entering the NCAA transfer portal. There is still time for their season to turn around, but things are not looking up.
The Spartans have major problems on offense
In recent years, Michigan State has not been a team known for being explosive on offense. Like Northwestern, the Spartans have found success relying on a strong defense with an offense that is capable of scoring when it needs to. This year, however, MSU has largely been failing in all facets of the offense, and it begins with their issues at the quarterback position.
After three-year starter Brian Lewerke graduated in 2019, the Spartans rolled out junior Rocky Lombardi to start the season but to no avail, as the Iowa native has already thrown seven interceptions this year. He was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Payton Thorne midway through their latest game against Indiana, but Thorne was largely ineffective as well, completing just 50% of his passes and tossing an interception to boot.
Things are no better in the running game. The Spartans had four different backs who combined for 46 yards on 14 carries against Indiana, and the team gained just 59 rushing yards at Iowa and 50 against Rutgers. MSU’s 73.8 yards per game on the ground ranks 122nd out of 124 FBS teams playing this fall.
MSU’s typically strong run defense is not very good this year
The Spartans’ defense is not necessarily bad this year by any means. They currently rank 49th in the FBS in total yards allowed per game. However, it is a regression from past years, especially in the rushing department. After finishing first and 15th in rushing yards allowed per game in 2018 and 2019, MSU now ranks 52nd, giving up an average of 149.2 yards per game on the ground. This is good news for Northwestern, whose running backs have struggled in the past couple of weeks.
MSU’s defense has fallen short in forced turnovers, slotting in at 86th in scoring defense in the FBS. When your offense has given the ball away fourteen times in just four games, forcing turnovers on defense is a must in order to have a chance to win games.