Northwestern Preview with John Paschall

Michigan State is coming off a historic win against Nebraska last weekend.  Before that win, they were 0-7 against the Cornhuskers dating back to 1914. They were the only Big Ten team Michigan State had never beaten, and they can check them off the list now.

Not only did they beat Nebraska for the first time, but they also clinched a share of the Legends Division title. But their work isn’t over yet, as they travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on Northwestern tomorrow.

Northwestern was coming off a 10-3 season last year, a season that ended in a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State on New Years Day.

Earlier in the season, expectations were very high as the Wildcats were returning dynamic pieces on offense, such as quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.  However, this season for the Wildcats has gone wrong.

After starting out 4-0, they set up a primetime matchup against Ohio State.  The Wildcats led twice in the fourth quarter, but a couple of costly turnovers allowed the Buckeyes to sneak by them.

They then got dealt with easily by Wisconsin and followed that up with a three point loss to Minnesota, and an overtime loss to Iowa.

Their next two losses were perhaps the most disheartening, and definitely the most bizarre. They appeared to be ready to bounce back with a win at Nebraska, but they lost on a last second tipped Hail Mary pass.

Then they returned home against Michigan, and again appeared to have secured the victory until Michigan hit a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.  Michigan had no timeouts left and had to rush their kicking unit out, and Brendan Gibbons converted the wild field goal.  The Wolverines finished it off in the third overtime session by a score of 27-19.

That It leads us to this weekend’s matchup between Michigan State and Northwestern.  The Wildcats team is a bit of an enigma this season.  Looking solely at their record, they look like an easy win for the Spartans to get in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis for the second time in three years.  However, under closer inspection, they are still a dangerous team.

To get a better idea of our opponent this weekend, I wanted to get the perspective of a Northwestern expert.

I got the chance to speak with John Paschall, who is the Assistant Game Day Editor at The Daily Northwestern. Below is a few of the topics we discussed.  My questions are prefaced with DT, and his with JP.

Interview with John Paschall


DT:  Northwestern came into this season with high expectations.  They were coming off a 10-win season and a bowl win and were undefeated in non-conference play, but have lost all six Big Ten games thus far.  What has gone wrong with this team?


JP:  I think there’s definitely an element of bad luck with this season. But the Wildcats have certainly had their fair share of moments where they shot themselves in the foot. Bad plays like fumbling late in the fourth quarter against Iowa while driving to score or two pick-sixes thrown by Trevor Siemian in the Nebraska and Minnesota games (both were decided by less than a touchdown in the end) always hurt a team and affect close games. Then there are plays like the Hail Mary against Nebraska and the absurdly fast field goal by Michigan that really make you wonder if this year’s team is cursed. To add on to that, injuries have also played a role, with the most devastating coming to senior running back Venric Mark, who Northwestern hopes to have back next year after a medical redshirt. The offense just isn’t the same without his explosiveness.


DT:  Five of their six losses have been close games. Two of those games were decided in overtime (Iowa and Michigan) and one was lost on a last second Hail Mary (Nebraska).  Is morale pretty much broken around campus there?


JP:  It is for this season because of the high hopes. But in general for the program, I don’t believe it is. The way the team played against Ohio State on national television was really inspiring and showed that we can hang with anyone when we want to. We also have a tremendous recruiting class coming in next year (assuming everyone stays on board and signs) that I believe will lay down a really solid foundation for the program for years to come. But certainly getting fans excited about the team is hard when you lose on ridiculous plays like a Hail Mary. It’s never fun seeing your team on the losing end of a SportsCenter Top 10 play.


DT:  Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most respected coaches in America and beloved amongst Northwestern fans.  Has campus-wide opinion changed on him during this tough season?


JP: There’s been a lot of recent criticism over Fitzgerald and his lack of risk-taking. He usually takes a very conservative approach when dealing with certain fourth down situations or even trick plays. Some writers, including myself, think he should be a little riskier, especially this season. But regardless, he is so beloved by this fan base. Some students probably believe he walks on the waters of Lake Michigan. He represents the university and the team so well that there’s really nobody you can replace him with. Another underrated part about Fitzgerald is how well he does recruiting a school that has such high academic admissions standards. It’s not easy to find that type of student-athlete in high school and then convince them to come to Northwestern over a place like Stanford.


DT:  Northwestern needs to win this game against Michigan State AND their last game against Illinois to be bowl eligible.  Do you think Fitzgerald and his coaching staff will change up their normal game plan since they don’t have much to lose at this point?


JP:  I don’t think they will change up their normal game plan, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they try some new plays. I have a feeling they might have a few tricks up their sleeve because they’ve officially entered the “must-win” mode. Now what do they have planned? Most of us here don’t know. But always look out for Kain Colter because Northwestern loves to line him up in the slot and send him out as a receiver, but maybe one of these times they will have some trick play with him catching a backwards pass and throwing it downfield. We will find out on Saturday.


DT:  Piggybacking on that last question; which quarterback will we see more of on Saturday, Trevor Siemian or Kain Colter?


JP:  Most likely Colter because of his athleticism. Our offensive line has been average to put it nicely. They’ve had their good moments, but they’ve certainly had their growing pains. Colter’s ability to escape the pocket and make plays is a vital part of our offense, and I know it really hurt the Spartans last year. Siemian will certainly see his snaps because he’s healthier now after recovering from an injury in the Wisconsin game.


DT:  Northwestern’s defense tends to give up the occasional big play, but really dig their heels in when backed up in their red zone.  Michigan State, on the other hand, doesn’t convert many big plays on offense and eats up a lot of possession time.  Is this Northwestern’s biggest advantage over the Spartans in this game?


JP:  If it is an advantage, it’s a slight one. One of the biggest keys in the game will be if the Northwestern offense can sustain drives. If they can stay on the field and get the defense some rest, that’ll keep them fresh later in the game. But if the Wildcats go three-and-out a lot, this defense, as good as it has been in previous weeks, will get worn out by the end of the game.


DT:  With all that being said, it’s time for predictions.  Who do you got this weekend, by what score, and why?

JP:  I think this game will be much closer than people think. I know the spread right now is MSU -7.5, and I definitely think that’s high. The Wildcats will be on an emotional high because of Senior Day, and the defense will continue to keep Northwestern in the game. But I just can’t see the offense, with the way that unit has been playing recently, putting up a lot, if any, points against the Spartans defense. So I’m going to go Michigan State 16, Northwestern 13.


Dan Tyler is the host of Spartan Red Zone for Impact Sports.

Photo: David Defever