After its 5-0 start and the cancelation of Wisconsin’s matchup with Minnesota this weekend, No. 8 Northwestern is one win away from clinching the Big Ten West division for the second time in three years and four wins away from its first-ever College Football Playoff berth.
However, for their postseason hopes and dreams to come true, the Wildcats have to take down a few pesky opponents ahead, including a post-Thanksgiving brawl with the Michigan State Spartans.
Ahead of NU’s matchup in East Lansing, we chatted with Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors about MSU’s rough 1-3 start, expectations under new head coach Mel Tucker and what the Spartans can do to hand the Wildcats their first loss.
INU: What were the expectations for the team coming into this year, and how has the actual outcome compared?
TOC: Honestly, Spartans fans didn’t quite know what to expect. Mark Dantonio abruptly retired in February, Mel Tucker was then hired, and then by the time he put his staff together and was just going to be able to settle into his new role, the pandemic hit. This of course wiped away spring ball, on-campus recruiting, in-person team workouts and meetings, etc. I mean the new offensive and defensive schemes had to be implemented over Zoom calls — not ideal for a brand new coaching staff or for the players trying to learn a brand new system. Then summer workouts were finally allowed, which later had to be paused for two weeks due to COVID concerns, and then eventually fall camp started and that was shut down four or five days later. So obviously it was a whirlwind.
Once the Big Ten decided to move forward with the season that started on Oct. 24, there was still plenty of mystery and intrigue surrounding the program. Michigan State lost a significant amount of starters from last season as well, so that coupled with the new staff and the pandemic challenges meant growing pains were expected. But MSU opened the year with an upset loss to Rutgers, who the Spartans had never lost to previously since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014. So fans were not quite happy with that one, after Michigan State gave the ball away seven times. Then, MSU followed that up with a near perfect game in an upset road win over fierce rival Michigan — the fans were ecstatic and had totally forgotten about the Rutgers debacle because a win over Michigan is huge for the program every single time. However since then, Michigan State was blown out by both Iowa and Indiana by a total score of 73-7. Last week’s game against Maryland was canceled due to elevated numbers in the Terrapins’ program.
I would say, from what I saw, the majority of fans and pundits were projecting three to four wins for MSU prior to the start of the season. It doesn’t look like that will happen.
INU: Michigan State hasn’t had the strongest start to the season going 1-3 so far. What does the team need to improve on to turn its season around?
TOC: The most obvious thing that comes to mind is the turnover differential — Michigan State has given the ball away 14 times this season (eight interceptions, six fumbles lost), which ranks 111th in the nation. The Spartans have only taken the ball away five times, and the team’s minus-nine turnover margin ranks only ahead of Duke and Louisville nationally. It is not a coincidence that the only game in which the Spartans did not have a turnover was also MSU’s lone victory so far this season at Michigan. Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker preaches the importance of ball security on just about every press conference and certainly in every practice, yet his team has not abided. Eliminating the mental mistakes — turnovers, penalties and miscommunications — needs to be MSU’s top priority against an undefeated Northwestern squad.
Secondly, the Spartans need to find a way to get the running game going. It will be a tough task against the stout Northwestern defense, but Michigan State’s run blocking is amongst the worst in the nation, and MSU simply cannot afford to be one-dimensional against the Wildcats — the passing game isn’t good enough to carry it. If Michigan State wants to turn things around, it starts in the trenches — the Spartans need to control the clock and win the field position battle.
Quite honestly, there are many more things I could talk about that need improvement, such as getting consistent quarterback play on offense, limiting big plays on defense, special teams play and not being predictable with play calls in certain situations, but I digress.
INU: What has been the Spartans’ greatest strength so far?
TOC: I would say “strengths” have been hard to find so far, but Michigan’s State’s defense has performed much better than its offense. The defense has had to face short fields more often than not due to turnovers from the offense (hence the high combined points total allowed in the past two weeks). MSU has held its own when it has needed to, though. After Indiana took a 24-0 lead into halftime last game, the Spartans kept fighting and held the Hoosiers off of the scoreboard in the second half. MSU also caused two turnovers in that game, and three turnovers against Rutgers. The Spartans are holding opposing rushers to 3.85 yards per carry and about 6.5 yards per passing attempt — not excellent by any means, but much more promising than some of the offensive numbers show (for example, MSU is averaging just 2.2 yards per rush).
Michigan State also has a very good group of wide receivers who have speed and can make plays with the ball in their hands. Unfortunately the quarterback play has not been great, so the receivers haven’t always been able to show what they can do, but Jalen Nailor, Jayden Reed and Ricky White all have had some great moments at times this season.
INU: How does having a week off due to the Maryland game cancelation impact Michigan State heading into the matchup against Northwestern?
TOC: While I believe game experience is the best experience, I think having an extra week to prepare for a 5-0 Northwestern team is going to be beneficial, obviously. There were several starters, especially in the secondary, who missed the game against Indiana, so the Spartans were hopefully able to use the pseudo-bye week to get healthy. My understanding is the team took the day off from practice last Thursday and then began to prepare for the Wildcats on Friday, so that gives them a leg up on Northwestern, who obviously wasn’t preparing for the Spartans until this week. Whether that extra prep time matters or not on the field this Saturday remains to be seen — on paper there looks like there could be a pretty wide talent gap here (advantage Northwestern), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a more competitive game than people think.
INU: In the last couple games Rocky Lombardi and Payton Thorne have split time at QB. What can Northwestern fans expect from that position battle this weekend?
TOC: Mel Tucker is pretty tight-lipped about personnel decisions leading to the game, so don’t expect an announcement about who is starting until pre-game warmups on Saturday. My guess is redshirt freshman Payton Thorne is going to draw his first career start. He came in for Rocky Lombardi in the first half of the Indiana game, after Lombardi threw two picks, and flashed his potential —including with a 38-yard run on his first play from scrimmage. Still, Thorne did not play consistently, either. Tucker said the staff pulled Lombardi due to his “decision-making.” The week before against Iowa, Thorne got a few snaps in as well, but that was just late in the game with the team down a ton of points and Lombardi was not “benched” in that one per se.
Thorne is more mobile and more of an improviser who can make exciting plays, while Lombardi has a stronger arm and is one of the team’s leaders. The team really seemed to want Lombardi to be the guy, but he hasn’t produced the past couple of weeks. Both are the sons of coaches and understand the game well. It’s just a matter of being able to play turnover-free football and moving the offense consistently. Again, I think we see Thorne this week, but I don’t expect to find out until game day.
INU: How do Michigan State fans feel about Mel Tucker so far?
TOC: I think it’s still mostly wait-and-see mode this early on, but the majority of us believe in him and what he’s building. Spartans fans just need to have patience — this is a rebuild and that takes time, not to mention the man has had to start from scratch in the middle of a global pandemic. I mean, like I said fans were quite disappointed after the embarrassing loss to Rutgers, but then basically wanted to build a statue for him outside of Spartan Stadium once he became the first MSU coach since Nick Saban to beat Michigan in his first attempt. This year has had ups and downs, and the last couple of weeks have been brutal to watch, but it’s about the future at this point. Trust the process.
He’s also known as an excellent recruiter, and we’re starting to see that now. Recruiting started slow for him — which makes sense given his late hiring and the fact that recruits still can’t officially visit campus, but he’s landed some big 2021 prospects as of late and has already locked in a couple of verbal commitments in the 2022 class. The future looks bright once he builds this program the way he wants to build it.
INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern after starting their season 5-0, especially following their win over Wisconsin, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most intimidating to the Spartans?
TOC: I’m going to be honest, I did not buy Northwestern early on, but now after defeating Wisconsin and Iowa (who blew the doors off of Michigan State), I am starting to believe the Wildcats are a real threat in the Big Ten. I think it’s foolish to believe this team shouldn’t be able to easily take down the Spartans based on how each team has performed so far — and Northwestern has won three of the past four games against Michigan State as well, so while Mel Tucker and some of the schemes are new, Pat Fitzgerald is plenty familiar with the Spartans and will come in with a good game plan.
What worries me most about Northwestern is by far the defense, particularly the rush defense. The Wildcats give up just 3.5 yards per carry and 100.6 yards on the ground, while I mentioned that is one of Michigan State’s biggest struggles offensively. I’m not overly concerned with Peyton Ramsey (who some of these MSU players have played against while he was at Indiana) and the offense, but I just think the Spartans are going to have a hard time moving the football. It could be a low-scoring game.
INU: What does Michigan State have to do to take down Northwestern, and what is a matchup that the Spartans need to win in order to beat the Wildcats?
TOC: As I mentioned earlier, the first thing is ball security — Michigan State will not win this game if it loses the turnover battle. Period. The second thing is eliminating penalties and mental mistakes. Third is sustain drives and, of course, put points up on the board as often as possible — that sounds simple, but has been a real issue for MSU the past two games. When MSU is not able to score, the punt coverage team needs to be much better and help Michigan State flip field position.
The key matchup is in the trenches. The team that rushes for more yards will likely win the contest, and if MSU’s offense continues to have run plays blown up at or behind the line of scrimmage, it is going to be a long day. Pass protection is also going to be key for the Spartans, and on the other side of the ball I would like to see the defensive line cause pressure and get sacks on Ramsey — something the defense has not been able to do a ton of (just five sacks in four games).
PS: Paddy Fisher is one of my favorite non-Michigan State players to watch in the Big Ten. He is tough, makes plays and just always seems to be near the ball. I think the Spartans need to limit his effectiveness and impact on the game if the team will be able to move the ball and find success.
What is your game prediction?
I have zero reason to believe Michigan State wins this game...so the Spartans probably will get the victory because #2020. And I guess Northwestern is about due for an upset.
Michigan State 20, Northwestern 17