After the Spartans’ homecoming game was nearly spoiled by a pesky Indiana team, Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 B1G) came out on top in one of their uglier performances of the season, winners of their last four games after their week three loss to Notre Dame.
The Spartans will travel to Evanston, Ill. where they’ll face off with the Northwestern Wildcats (4-3, 2-2 B1G) and look to start Big Ten play 5-0 for just the fourth time in school history. MSU has not been to Evanston since 2013, where they clinched the Big Ten Legends division title on their way to winning a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl later in the season.
“We have not been up to Northwestern since 2013, so we’re looking forward to the challenge and opportunity up there,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Pat Fitzgerald has always had great football games with Michigan State.”
Saturday’s meeting will mark the 56th time these two teams have done battle, with their last matchup coming last season with the Wildcats winning in Spartan Stadium in a shootout, 54-40. The Spartans are winners of five of their last seven meetings with the Wildcats, but Dantonio knows just how big of a game it means for them Saturday.
“They’ve got some bell cows at each position whether it’s defensive line, linebacker or in the secondary,” Dantonio said. “[NU defensive coordinator] Mike Hankwitz does a great job with that.”
After dropping their first two games in conference, the Wildcats are winners of their last two games. Last week, they took Iowa to overtime before prevailing 17-10. Northwestern rides on the arm of their junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 241.1 passing yards per game. Thorson, however, has thrown just eight touchdowns to nine interceptions on the season.
Northwestern gets the bulk of their offense from Thorson and their aerial attack, which ranks third in the Big Ten at 256.9 yards per game. Having lost standout receiver Austin Carr to the NFL, the Wildcats have found solid production from sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek. The big 6-foot-4, 218-pound receiver leads the team with 25 catches for 344 yards, but has just two touchdowns.
Despite the Wildcats ranking 10th in the Big Ten in rushing at 136.9 yards per game, they rely heavily on their star senior tailback Justin Jackson. Jackson comes into Saturday ranked fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game, at 86.1 with six touchdowns on the season. Jackson ranks eighth all time in the Big Ten in career rushing yards with 4,732.
“They’re an offense that has a very good quarterback and a very good tailback,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “When you have those two things you’re dangerous. That jumps out right off the bat.”
Bringing back most of their defense from last season, the Wildcats have struggled this season defensively, especially against the pass. Giving up 23.3 points per game, ninth in the Big Ten, they’re also second-worst in the Big Ten, giving up 245.9 yards per game through the air. Their run defense has been stout, giving up just 121.3 yards per game on the ground, sixth best in the Big Ten. Having faced three of the top backs in the conference in Akrum Wadley, Saquon Barkley, and Jonathan Taylor, the Wildcats defense stifled them to 90, 75, and 80 yards respectively.
The Spartans will need to find success through the air against a porous Wildcat secondary. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was stagnant throughout most of the Indiana game, but came alive in the fourth quarter with 73 passing yards and two crucial connections with freshman Cody White late in the game. Mustering just 89 yards on the ground last week, MSU will need to find ways to establish the ground game early to open up the pass game which will need solid production from its playmakers.
“I think that when you establish the run game, that brings everything into place,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “When you look at our goals each and every week, if we’re able to run the football and not turn it over, those other things fall into place, it makes it much easier.”
This is a Northwestern offense that can really put pressure on opposing defenses, averaging 393.7 yards per game, fourth-best in the Big Ten. The Spartans will look to turn the Wildcats over, with the Spartan defense forcing only one turnover in their last two games, so winning the turnover battle will be pivotal. Being resilient in their run defense against Jackson, a unit that gives up only 93.4 yards on the ground, second best in the conference, will be crucial for slowing down the Wildcats’ efficient offense.
The Spartans and Wildcats are set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN. Forecasted weather for kick looks to be more of the same from Michigan and Minnesota, with expected rain and temperatures around 46 degrees. Warner pleaded for decent weather for the game in Wednesday’s assistant coaches’ press conference, and it looks like he may not get his wish this week.