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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern at Michigan State

The ‘Cats head to Spartan Stadium looking to recalibrate the offense.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Northwestern (5-0) comes off of the thrilling upset against Wisconsin to face Michigan State (1-3). The Spartans are coming off a COVID bye after its game against Maryland was canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Terrapin program. Here are three matchups to watch for as NU heads to East Lansing looking to creep closer to clinching the Big Ten West title.

Wildcat running backs vs the Michigan State front seven

The ‘Cats have struggled to run the ball recently, totaling just 104 yards on 1.6 yards per carry over the past two weeks. Now, heading on the road against a struggling Spartan defense, they have the opportunity to get back on track.

While Michigan State doesn’t have the traditional big names along the front seven it has had in the past, the Green still have some run-stoppers to keep an eye on. Linebackers Noah Harvey and Antjuan Simmons both have 4.5 tackles for loss on the season and sport the potential to clog up running lanes between the tackles, where starting running back Isaiah Bowser does the majority of his work.

If the Wildcat ball carriers can create space against an average defensive front, they have the chance to find balance and control the time of possession.

Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman vs Shakur Brown

One of the few bright spots for Mel Tucker’s squad is breakout junior cornerback Shakur Brown, who has recorded three interceptions in four games and has an impressive coverage grade of 83.2 from PFF. While the matchup is not for certain, it would make sense for defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton to assign his best corner to Chiaokhiao Bowman, NU’s hottest receiver. Otherwise Brown figures to go up against Kyric McGowan, who caught a 77-yard score last time NU played at Michigan State.

RCB has 181 yards and four touchdowns in his past two games. He and McGowan have been quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s favorite targets of late, and it will be interesting to see if the senior can once again carry the day while matched up against a ballhawk like Brown.

Eku Leota vs the Spartan offensive tackles

Leota has emerged as Northwestern’s premier pass rusher as the defensive line has come alive. His teammate Earnest Brown said postgame that everybody should know Leota’s name, and Brown is right. Against Purdue and Wisconsin, the junior logged 10 total pressures, three sacks and a fumble. NU has racked up six sacks in its past two games as Mike Hankwtiz’s defense has grown in to one of the nation’s best units.

Leota now has the chance to further continue his sack streak against a Michigan State offensive line that let allowed four sacks to Indiana in its last outing. The Spartans rank just 88th by PFF in pass blocking with a grade of 59.3. If Leota can continue to generate pressure, the Wildcats should have little trouble slowing down whatever combination of Rocky Lombardi and Payton Thorne MSU plays under center.