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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s disappointing loss to Michigan State

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This one didn’t go as planned.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

After a historic 2020 season, the Wildcats entered the 2021 opener against Michigan State with little returning production but a good amount of momentum. Unfortunately, Northwestern fell behind early and stayed behind for the rest of the opener against the Spartans, due in large part of a monster showing from MSU running back Kenneth Walker III. Here are five takeaways from Northwestern’s sloppy loss to Michigan State:

Northwestern’s defense may be their weakness

Leading up to Northwestern’s season opener, the main source of worry was the team’s new-look offense. However, after Friday night’s debacle, the Wildcats’ defense has risen atop the list of concerns.

First and foremost, the ‘Cats’ run defense struggled mightily. Plagued by missed tackles and other miscues, the traditionally-stout unit was gashed by running back Kenneth Walker III, who ran for 264 yards and four touchdowns on just 23 touches. Additionally, Northwestern failed to generate any sort of consistent pressure on Payton Thorne, allowing the young, untested quarterback plenty of time to scan the field and make easy throws.

With all of that said, it’s far too early to hit the panic button. Northwestern’s defense is relatively inexperienced and playing under a new defensive coordinator in Jim O’Neil, so the hope is that they will improve over time. However, if the results from O’Neil’s previous defensive coordinator gigs are any indication of what’s to come, the ‘Cats’ run defense will be their Achilles heel all season. In O’Neil’s three seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator, his teams finished 32nd, 30th, and 31st when it came to opponent rushing yards per game.

The Hunter Johnson resurrection is just getting started

Hunter Johnson was the ultimate wildcard heading into the opener, as nobody knew which version of the enigmatic quarterback to expect. Would we see the former number one-rated signal-caller in his recruiting class or the guy that got benched and lost the starting job in 2019?

Although Johnson’s performance against Michigan State may not have lived up to the Peyton Manning comparisons he garnered in high school, he managed to emerge as one of Northwestern’s few bright spots, putting together a promising, faith-restoring outing. He wasn’t perfect, but the 23-year-old looked poised and deserving of the starting job, displaying his impressive arm talent with several eye-opening throws on his way to 275 yards and three touchdowns.

It remains to be seen just how much of a factor Johnson can become, as he should only improve throughout the season with more reps and experience in Mike Bajakian’s system. Regardless, it seems that Johnson won’t hinder any potential success for the Wildcats in 2021.

Kirtz and Robinson will fill the void at WR

Aside from Johnson, the other major question mark ahead of the 2021 campaign was Northwestern’s receiving corps. Just like their quarterback, this group, particularly Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson Jr., silenced the doubters with their performance against the Spartans.

Kirtz, whose mere six catches a season ago stood as the highest mark among all of Northwestern’s current receivers, quickly rekindled his connection with his former high school quarterback. He caught seven balls for 80 yards, including a 41-yard jump ball on a third-and-long prayer. Making a number of key grabs in crucial situations versus Michigan State, Kirtz has already emerged as a reliable go-to target for Johnson.

Robinson, a small but speedy target, also impressed on Friday night. He showed off his wheels on a beautiful 47-yard catch down the sideline, leaving his defender in the dust by creating great separation. The Kansas transfer finished with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown, and looks to be up there with Kirtz as one of Johnson’s favorite targets. Ultimately, it looks as if these two may turn what was thought to be a position of weakness into a possible strength.

Northwestern will feel the absence of Cam Porter

After bursting onto the scene as a true freshman toward the end of the 2020 campaign, the ‘Cats were prepared to make Cam Porter their workhorse this season. The running back was primed for a breakout year as the engine of the Northwestern offense. Until it was announced that he was out for the season with a lower body injury.

With Porter sidelined, the ‘Cats run game left a lot to be desired against Michigan State. The committee tasked with filling the void of the injured bell cow — Evan Hull, Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III — was largely unimpressive. Although the trio ultimately combined for a respectable 114 rushing yards on 21 carries, those numbers are deceiving and significantly inflated by garbage-time production and one big run by Evan Hull. Without Hull’s 49-yard rush and their yardage from the Wildcats’ last full drive when the game was already out of reach, the trio combined for a mere 38 yards on 16 attempts, an average of 2.4 yards per carry.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that Porter is going to be very difficult to replace and the ‘Cats are certainly going to feel the absence of the borderline game-changing running back. They must find a way to put together some semblance of a consistent rushing attack to avoid hampering the entire offense.

Don’t sleep on Michigan State’s offense

Enough about Northwestern’s defense. Let’s give the Spartans’ offense some credit. They are loaded with explosive playmakers. Wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor form a strong duo, filled with talent and home-run potential. Running back Kenneth Walker III looks poised to wreak havoc on the Big Ten and is a threat to take it to the house on every touch. Even Michigan State’s running back turned tight end Connor Heyward flashed potential in his new role.

If Payton Thorne and the offensive line, the two question marks on this side of the ball heading into the season, continue to play at the level they did versus the ‘Cats, this offense is going to be very difficult to stop. It’s a quietly dangerous unit.