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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Michigan State

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The battle in the trenches will be key.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Why Northwestern will beat Michigan State

The Wildcats win in the trenches

Success oftentimes starts in the trenches, and the ‘Cats seem to have the advantage in that area. Although the rest of the roster is filled with question marks, the blend of talent, potential and experience on Northwestern’s offensive and defensive lines should culminate to form two of the team’s strongest units.

The offensive line will be bookended by two returning starters, with superstar left tackle Peter Skoronski protecting Hunter Johnson’s blindside and former starting guard Ethan Wiederkehr starting at right tackle this season. Meanwhie, the interior of the o-line will be anchored by center Sam Gerak, who has been excellent across his 21 starts over the past two seasons. On defense, the ‘Cats are relying on Adebawore, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2020 with two sacks and six tackles for loss, to blossom into an expanded role this year. Additionally, they’ll need Samdup Miller to return to form following his 2020 opt-out. These two groups should have the upper hand over the Spartans’ less-proven units, positioning the ‘Cats for a strong outing.

Northwestern has plenty of extra motivation

After being written off yet again by many analysts throughout the offseason, the ‘Cats head into Friday’s season opener with a chip on their shoulder. Just as they did in 2020, they’ll be looking to start the season with a signature win. Additionally, this will be their first home game in front of fans since Nov. 23, 2019. If Pat Fitzgerald’s squad needs even more motivation, they’ll also be seeking redemption for last year’s loss.

Northwestern’s worst performance of the 2020 season came in East Lansing, where the Spartans handed them their first and only regular-season loss in what was a sloppy, uninspired showing. This put an end to any hopes of the ‘Cats making an unlikely appearance in the College Football Playoff. Additionally, Michigan State trounced the ‘Cats in Evanston in 2019, coasting to a 31-10 victory. That game marked the start of what looked to be quarterback Hunter Johnson’s downfall, as the former five-star recruit was benched in the second half and eventually lost the starting job. Two years later, the veteran is back under center.

Pat Fitzgerald and his staff

After losing to a largely similar Spartans squad a year ago, the ‘Cats should be well-prepared for this contest with solid game plans on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Mike Bajakian will likely dial up a run-heavy approach. On defense, look for Jim O’Neil to attack early and often, especially given Michigan State’s cloudy situation at quarterback. If Fitzgerald and his staff need to adjust, they have shown a tremendous ability to do so. In four of Northwestern’s nine games in 2020, they shut out their opponent in the second half. X’s and O’s aside, the fiery head coach will surely have his team locked in and juiced up as ever for this game.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Michigan State

Northwestern is too inexperienced

Northwestern’s inexperience could prove costly against a Spartans squad with solid continuity. According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the ‘Cats return just 39% of their production from 2020, the second-lowest mark in the FBS. Michigan State, on the other hand, returns 69% of its production.

For Northwestern, the offensive skill-position players are particularly green. For reference, in the 2020 season, none of the Wildcats’ current wide receivers had more than six receptions, and their current running backs had a combined 80 carries. Mike Bajakian will have guys all over his offense being thrown right into the fire, some of whom may be in over their heads at the outset. There likely won’t be much margin for error in what should be a tightly contested conference battle. Perhaps there is just too much that needs to go right for Northwestern to pull this one off.

Michigan State stifled Northwestern’s run game in 2020

Mel Tucker, Michigan State’s defensive-minded head coach, will be looking for an encore after his team’s impressive defensive performance against the ‘Cats in 2020. In that game, the Spartans did a tremendous job making Northwestern’s offense one-dimensional, as they were able to completely shut down Mike Bajakian’s productive rushing attack.

The ‘Cats, who averaged over 162 rushing yards per game in 2020, were held to just 63 total rushing yards and a mere 1.7 yards per carry in their visit to East Lansing. Michigan State forced two fumbles and picked off two passes as well. To make matters worse, when these two teams take the field on Friday, Northwestern will be without their four leading rushers from the 2020 season and will be led by an unproven quarterback working with a receiving core full of question marks. Tucker will likely plan to shut down the run and force the enigmatic Hunter Johnson to beat them with his arm. If Michigan State can execute and once again render Northwestern’s ground game ineffective, the ‘Cats are in trouble.

The Spartans will be looking to make a statement

Following an underwhelming campaign, Mel Tucker and his crew have a lot to prove in 2021. Despite their win over Northwestern, the Spartans struggled mightily a season ago. Each of their five losses came by two scores or more, and they surrendered 35 points per game, the most in the Big Ten.

Michigan State’s disappointing 2020 season may have been a result of the shortened offseason, which made things particularly challenging for their first-year head coach and his staff. However, with Tucker’s first full offseason in the books, the pressure is on this team to start turning a corner. Northwestern may be looking for redemption, but the Spartans will also be aiming to come away with a big win.