Well, it’s finally here. The 2021 college football season has arrived, with Northwestern taking on Michigan State at 8 p.m. Central Daylight Time at Ryan Field. Like many others, our staff has patiently waited for this day, and now, with just hours before kickoff, they’ve made their predictions for the season opener:
Mac Stone: Northwestern 23, Michigan State 16
I’m expecting a good amount of field goals in this one, and I’m honestly hoping the score is 9-9 at half so we can tweet something funny about Big Ten West football. In all seriousness though, both offenses are going to come out slow. It’ll be a defensive game in the first half before the ‘Cats “explode” for two touchdowns in the third quarter, only for MSU to get back one of their own in the fourth. In the end, Northwestern by a touchdown, vengeance is theirs. Only betting advice I can give is to hammer the under.
Daniel Olinger: Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17
Both offenses come out cold and trade punts as pundits race to get the best “Haha classic Big Ten football!” joke off on Twitter. Hunter Johnson throws one pick and one touchdown. Michigan State gets two annoyingly long touchdown drives powered by their run game, but a touchdown early in fourth quarter as NU trails by four gives the ‘Cats the lead. They then force an MSU turnover and run out the clock from there. Everyone then has a late post-game meal, takes a shower and goes to bed feeling slightly above average. Go sports.
Ben Chasen: Northwestern 17, Michigan State 13
If you find good ol’ fashioned Big Ten football — ya know, the type of football where teams take repeating turns punching each other in the mouth without really advancing their own respective chances — amusing, you’re going to love this game. I expect there to be a stretch of at least 20 consecutive minutes without a score in this game, and I’m gonna love every second of it.
But really, I expect Hunter Johnson to come out like a man with something to prove, which, I believe, will push him to match his career touchdown total of one with a big pass to Stephon Robinson Jr. I’ve got no other particular predictions, other than a Northwestern win and the score being low.
Didi Jin: Northwestern 38, Michigan State 31
If you include his time in the NFL with the Buccanneers, Mike Bajakian is 5-0 in his last five season openers. Knowing this statistic and remembering how well Northwestern’s offense performed in last season’s home opener, I’m very confident that the ‘Cats will have no trouble putting points on the board despite all of the first-time starters. However, similar to last year’s game at Sparty, I think the defense will struggle to stop the pass in a contest that surprises everyone and becomes a shootout. In Hunter Johnson I trust, though, as he will shock the world by throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, one of which will be to his former high school teammate Bryce Kirtz.
Jacob Brown: Michigan State 10, Northwestern 6
This game is going to be hideous. Gross. And with the exception of the ‘Cats losing, it’ll be delightful. Neither offense is particularly great, but I don’t trust Hunter yet. I think he gets NU into the red zone twice in the first half and Kubhander knocks them in. Anthony Russo connects with Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor early on and MSU is ahead at the half. Hunter leads a heroic late-game drive and then throws a brutal interception with a minute left.
John Olsen: Northwestern 31, Michigan State 10
Hunter Johnson might not be spectacular and there might be a defensive breakdown in the NU secondary at some point, but this game won’t be close. As Mac Stone detailed earlier in the week, everyone in the ‘Cats locker room understands the stakes surrounding this game. Last year’s loss in East Lansing will be a great motivator for the team and having fans back in Ryan Field under the lights will be a huge advantage for NU. The ‘Cats will jump out to a 14-0 lead behind Evan Hull, and before a shell-shocked Sparty can really get back into the game, it’s 21-3 at the half and NU is practically out of sight.
Lia Assimakopoulos: Northwestern 24, Michigan State 20
The revenge game is finally here, and while it won’t be as easy as last year’s opener, the ‘Cats will take care of business against Sparty. Northwestern’s offense will show some weaknesses, but its defense will remain strong and hold off whichever new quarterback starts under center for Michigan State.
Sarah Effress: Northwestern 18, Michigan State 10
I don’t see this being an incredible game offensively, but what I do expect is for the Northwestern defense to have some real bright spots early on that allow the ‘Cats to pull ahead. Either way, revenge is best served cold.
Eli Karp: Northwestern 23, Michigan State 19
Down by four, Michigan State needs a touchdown on its final drive. Northwestern’s defense bends but doesn’t break in a series reminiscent of the Mike Hankwitz era in its first game without the now-retired defensive coordinator. Northwestern...covers?
Colin Kruse: Northwestern 21, Michigan State 17
After I was the only writer who predicted then-undefeated Northwestern to lose against Sparty in last season’s meeting, I guess I need redemption. Hunter Johnson will have an unspectacular, if not solid game behind center, while the defense will win the turnover battle. A combination of NU’s dominance in the trenches, thanks to the return of Samdup Miller, and some playmaking from the secondary will see the ‘Cats enact their revenge to open the 2021 campaign.
Bradley Locker: Northwestern 24, Michigan State 17
The last time the ‘Cats donned their iconic gothic uniforms, they dismantled the Illini Fighting Illini behind outstanding ground performances from Cam Porter and Evan Hull. Though Porter won’t partake in this one, look for Hull to continue his momentum against a Michigan State squad that surrendered nearly 160 rushing yards per game a season ago. Both squads have questions at QB, but given that Sparty hasn’t formally declared a starter, Pat Fitzgerald should have the ingredients to cook up success. After all, you didn’t expect me to bet against Northwestern with the Wildcats wearing such breathtaking jerseys, did you?
Andrew Katz: Northwestern 23, Michigan State 18
Michigan State is returning 80 percent of its 2020 offensive production, including their talented receiving duo of Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed. The bad news for the Spartans offense is that Mel Tucker still hasn’t announced a starting quarterback, and they’re going against a Northwestern defense ranked 12th in the nation by Bill Connelly’s S&P+. With Cam Porter down, Evan Hull will have an enhanced role, and in Hunter Johnson’s first game since 2019 the ‘Cats will likely lean on the run. The ‘Cats will get their revenge behind a strong game from Hull and a game-sealing interception made by Brandon Joseph.
Brian Paget: Northwestern 17, Michigan State 10
It’ll be a tightly contested battle that goes down to the wire, but the ‘Cats will come away with a gutsy win over the Spartans, and the road to victory will be a familiar one. The offense will struggle, but they’ll ultimately be able to put just enough points on the board, taking a back seat as Northwestern’s defense leads them to victory. I expect the offensive line to put together a strong performance, allowing Mike Bajakian to establish the run and giving Hunter Johnson enough time to make some key throws. On defense, the secondary will step up, forcing turnovers and limiting Michigan State’s success in the passing game.
Nik Mehrotra: Northwestern 24, Michigan State 14
Why does a week one home game against unranked Michigan State feel so important? Maybe it’s because Northwestern’s trip to East Lansing last year proved to be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect regular season. Or perhaps it’s because it’s Hunter Johnson’s chance to make a second first impression on the college football landscape before Wildcat fans become impatient. Whatever it is, Northwestern has plenty of motivation to come out strong and prove that their incredible 2020 campaign wasn’t a fluke. The Spartans have yet to decide on a starting quarterback, so it’s less likely we’ll see this one won through the air. I think that Northwestern’s experience in the trenches and the preparation from Fitz’s staff will be the difference. The ‘Cats snag a convincing win to kick off the season.
Isaac Diaz: Northwestern 21, Michigan State 14
Looking for revenge from last season, Northwestern will take a win in week one. Although NU’s offense might not be the strongest this season, its defense will hold the Spartans enough to win the game. Also, it’s Northwestern’s advantage that the Spartans have not stated their starting quarterback. Regardless of who Mel Tucker chooses, Brandon Joseph and Northwestern’s defense will take care of the MSU passing attack. Plus, like Bradley mentioned, there is no way I can pick against the ‘Cats can lose in those uniforms.
Sydney Supple: Northwestern 24, Michigan State 17
This game means a lot more than just a home opener that is featured in prime time on ESPN... it involves redemption and, most importantly, an opportunity for a young team to prove themselves. There will be growing pains on the offensive side during certain drives, but, overall, we will see a new and improved Hunter Johnson. The key piece to securing the win is for transfer wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. to show the Big Ten who he is.
William Karmin: Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17
Predicting this game may be as big of a wildcard as there is in predicting game-by-game outcomes within NU’s 2021 schedule. I don’t think Northwestern is nearly as big of a lock as indicated by my fellow staffers. However, I do believe that NU’s will to win and sense of urgency should be enough to secure a W in the season opener.
Jackson Gordwin: Northwestern 34, Michigan State 24
I do not think that this opener will be similar to last year’s rout against Maryland, but I do believe that the ‘Cats will still be victorious. With the loss of Cam Porter, Michigan State may not pay as much attention to the running back position in their pregame preparations, but that would be a mistake. Evan Hull has a golden opportunity to shock the Big Ten just as he did last year against Illinois. Due to lapses in both defenses, I predict a relatively high-scoring game. The difference in this game will be the turnover battle, and I am confident that Brandon Joesph and the NU secondary will be able to rattle the Michigan State quarterback.
Special Guest Picker Noah Coffman: Northwestern 20, Michigan State 19
I’ve gone back and forth on this result in my head at least eight times in the past week. Football season is back, baby! Bottom line is that Michigan State’s best/deepest position is their RB room, while Northwestern’s is the defensive line. That’s the key matchup to watch here, as without Ricky White, MSU should be pretty one-dimensional in their passing attack, no matter which QB is throwing to carbon copies Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor. As we saw last year, they can still be explosive with those guys, who are certainly good receivers, but a Northwestern secondary that I think people are underrating should be able to learn from last year’s mistakes.
On the other side of the ball, MSU has a ton of new blood, especially in the back seven. But Northwestern’s offensive line should have a bit of an advantage despite how poorly 2020’s matchup went in that regard, and even a decent rushing effort should open enough doors for Stephon Robinson Jr. and occasionally Bryce Kirtz/whichever tight end Bajakian decides to feature for Hunter Johnson and the ‘Cats’ offense to avoid the outright bad performance I think they’d need to lose this one. Bottom line: Pat Fitzgerald wins close games, and there’s no reason this shouldn’t be close.