The Spartans may have spoiled the Wildcats’ undefeated season in 2020, but NU’s opportunity for revenge is only a couple of days away. Northwestern is favored by just a field goal, as most prognosticators are still waiting to get a feel for both squads prior to the season’s start. Here are three battles to keep an eye on in one of the Wildcats’ most anticipated games of the year.
Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed vs. the Sky Team
While Greg Newsome and JR Pace were big parts of Northwestern’s success in 2020 — Newsome had nine pass breakups and Pace had 41 tackles — the Wildcats’ secondary remains its best defensive position group. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Joseph is one of the best safeties in the country, and has the stats to back it up, as he recorded six interceptions and 52 tackles in his first season as a Wildcat. Additionally, the ‘Cats possess proven depth with A.J. Hampton, Cam Mitchell and Rod Heard at cornerback.
On the other side, the Sky Team will have a tough test to open the season. Michigan State has a formidable one-two punch of Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed at wide receiver. In 2020, Nailor and Reed combined for 59 catches, 922 yards and seven touchdowns. Nailor is a big-play threat and has the speed to get behind a defense. He had five catches for at least 45 or more yards last season on his way to averaging a staggering 19.8 yards per catch, which included a 99-yard performance and a touchdown against the ‘Cats in East Lansing. His partner in crime Reed also hauled in a score against Northwestern, and for the year led the Spartans in total receptions.
For Nailor and Reed to produce such strong sophomore seasons despite quarterback inconsistency is a testament to their incredible talent, as they both could have legitimate NFL Draft aspirations in 2022. They might’ve won the matchup in 2020, but there’s no doubt that Brandon Joseph and Co. are chomping at the bit for a chance at redemption this Friday.
Northwestern’s offensive line vs. Michigan State’s defensive line
The Trench ‘Cats outlived all expectations last year, and in 2021, they’ll need to keep that trend going, opening against a tough Michigan State front. The Wildcats only allowed 1.4 sacks per game last season, which was a noticeable improvement from the 2019 campaign. A big reason for the unit’s progress was a standout freshman season from Peter Skoronski, who is on pace to be a first-round pick in two years and already serves as one of the de facto leaders of the offensive line. Meanwhile, seniors Sam Gerak and Ethan Wiederkehr will bring much-needed veteran leadership as they return to their starting roles, while Josh Priebe and Charlie Schmidt have been announced as the two newest starters for the unit.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Spartans have the experience and depth to challenge the ‘Cats’ offensive line, starting with defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley, two seniors who combined for 4.0 sacks in last year’s shortened season. Additionally, Michael Fletcher and Jack Camper return as top backups who combined for 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks, while Jeff Pietrowski also earned playing time as a true freshman and should be able to provide more production in 2021. To top it all off, MSU nabbed Drew Jordan in the offseason, a graduate transfer who appeared in 48 career games for Duke, and overall have the bodies needed to go toe-to-toe with Northwestern in the trenches week one.
Hunter Johnson vs. Prior Struggles
Johnson’s career at Northwestern thus far has been difficult to say the least, but Pat Fitzgerald evidently has faith that he can turn things around, as he announced that the senior quarterback will start against the Spartans. Johnson transferred from Clemson after the 2017 season and didn’t play at all throughout 2018. He debuted in the 2019 season opener against Stanford both before and after T.J. Green went down with a season-ending injury, and in total HJ finished 6-for-17 with 55 yards and two interceptions against the Cardinal. Johnson started three games the rest of the season and ended with 432 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions, while averaging just four yards per attempt and a 46.3 completion percentage.
Johnson didn’t see the field at all in 2020, watching from the sidelines as Peyton Ramsey led the ‘Cats to a 7-2 season and a bowl win against Auburn. He ultimately stuck it out, and now the Wildcats will turn back to the quarterback who hasn’t played since late in November 2019 against Minnesota. After all that turbulence, Johnson finally has the chance to start anew with Mike Bajakian as the offensive coordinator, giving off many reasons for hope and excitement in spite of all the doubt. No matter the script of the game, his performance should be the story of the day when Northwestern battles Michigan State to open the season.