Finally, following a 244-day respite from Wildcat football, the drought ends tomorrow night, as Northwestern “welcomes” the Michigan State Spartans to Ryan Field for the inaugural match of their 2021 season. Of course, hostile feelings will be aplenty in the home crowd given the outcome of last year’s NU-MSU showdown.
With both teams having a lot to prove to their doubters (Northwestern for their youth and inexperience, Michigan State for playing so poorly the majority of last year), there will be a lot to learn from the two squads’ performance on Friday night. That’s where The Only Colors’ Ryan O’Bleness has come to our aide, offering his thoughts and predictions on the upcoming contest as our friendly neighborhood Spartan expert on this edition of the Interviewing the Enemy series.
Inside NU: Michigan State is projected by almost everybody to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten East. Is the expectation surrounding this program that it’s going to be a long, arduous rebuilding year?
Ryan O’Bleness: Michigan State is definitely in a rebuilding phase, as head coach Mel Tucker has recreated the roster in his vision and continues to instill the kind of culture he wants to have within the program. But the situation is not as dire as those outside of East Lansing may think. Tucker’s blueprints have put the Spartans in a position to be competitive in 2021, as he has laid the foundation for future success in the coming seasons.
To be honest, how the Spartans perform this season is a bit of a question mark, though. MSU has added well over 30 players (including true freshmen) to its roster compared to the 2020 season, and also had 30-plus players leave the program via the transfer portal, NFL or otherwise. Tucker and his staff brought in 19 transfers, and the majority of those transfers are scholarship players expected to play meaningful snaps right away. How all of these new players fit in, and how the team adapts, remains to be seen, but the chemistry and energy already seems to be high at the end of fall camp. I expect the team to improve throughout the year, and make a bowl game. But this squad is still far away from being a Big Ten championship contender.
INU: How do Spartans’ fans usually feel heading into a game against Northwestern? What are their impressions of having to face this team?
RO: Personally, I feel like Northwestern is always a good measuring stick. Pat Fitzgerald has done an incredible job taking a previously dormant program and turning it into Big Ten West Division champions. I think these two programs opening the season against each other is intriguing because both teams have such different personnel this year compared to last year, and I don’t don’t think anybody truly knows what to expect from either school.
Michigan State and Northwestern have had some entertaining games over the years, but it does seem like MSU has often had NU’s number more often than not, with the 2020 game being no exception and the Spartans winning the game despite having no business doing so (or, of course, the epic comeback in 2006). Michigan State also leads the all-time series 39-20. But with that said, the Wildcats have been much more competitive lately, winning in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before back-to-back wins by the Spartans in 2019 and 2020.
I can’t speak for the entire fan base, but I do believe the majority of Spartans fans share similar thoughts as me — there is a lot of respect for Fitzgerald and Northwestern, and it will probably be a tough, physical game that is hard to predict, but I think most MSU fans expect a win.
INU: Every Northwestern fan has had this game circled on their calendar, wanting vengeance for last year’s upset. Does MSU and the fanbase feel confident they can beat NU again, or are they worried that the ‘Cats are the better team and will come out more focused this time around?
RO: It’s hard to look at this Northwestern team in 2021 and think the Wildcats are a better squad than the Big Ten West Champion team from last year, just because so many of the players from that very talented team are now gone. It doesn’t necessarily mean NU won’t be competitive again this year, I just have a hard time seeing the Wildcats repeating that level of success. Michigan State, on the other hand, was not a very good team last year, but still upset Northwestern (correctly predicted by yours truly). This year, the Spartans are expected to be improved, but nobody knows to what degree, and the amount of new players who will be on the field makes it difficult to judge how well MSU will play in the season opener and throughout the season.
But, as I said in the previous question, I think a win is most definitely within reach for the Spartans, and Michigan State fans feel relatively confident about it. With fans back in the stands, I expect Northwestern to have somewhat of a home-field advantage, but it won’t be as strong as usual since Spartan Nation has a strong presence in the Chicago area, and many fans from Michigan will travel for the game.
INU: While the team overall isn’t projected to do too well, the defense for Michigan State is still well regarded and should pose a challenge to this young Northwestern offense. Who are the standout players to watch and how do you think they’ll fare against the ‘Cats?
RO: Michigan State rebuilt its defense through the transfer portal, but also has several of last year’s contributors returning. In the secondary, Xavier Henderson, Angelo Grose, Kalon Gervn and Michael Dowell all played significant roles last year and all likely return to prominent roles this year. There are also the transfer additions of Chester Kimbrough (Florida) and Ronald Williams (Alabama) who will likely play meaningful snaps at cornerback on Friday as well. Michigan State runs a 4-2-5 base defense, so a lot of defensive backs stay on the field.
The linebacker position saw a lot of attrition in the offseason, and brought in three highly-regarded transfers in Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee), Ben VanSumeren (Michigan) and Itayvion ”Tank” Brown (Minnesota). Of this group, expect Crouch to make the biggest immediate impact, but all may see playing time. Brown has also worked as a defensive end/stand-up edge rusher.
MSU also returns Noah Harvey and Chase Kline from last year’s team, and they’ll both likely see reps, even if they don’t end up starting. The Spartans also brought in four-star true freshman linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote. He may not play right away, but has already made an impression at fall camp.
Along the defensive line, the names to watch are veteran defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesely, and Duke transfer Drew Jordan, who also plays on the edge. In the interior, Jacob Slade is a veteran defensive tackle, but is currently dealing with an injury and his status for Friday is unknown. Jalen Hunt, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound redshirt sophomore is expected to start at the other defensive tackle spot. Expect the Spartans to rotate a lot of guys in the defensive trenches, though.
INU: Game prediction — who wins on Friday and by what score?
RO: Again, it is so hard to predict the outcome of this game because both teams are serious question marks right now given all of the roster turnover and remaking. I think it will be a low-scoring, physical, defense-dominant affair. I expect both offenses to work some kinks out and get into more of a rhythm as the game goes on, but struggle to move the ball in the first half. At the end of the day, I have another gut feeling that Michigan State pulls out a narrow victory, with Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III leading the way and grinding out the clock for the MSU offense.
Michigan State 24, Northwestern 21