The Northwestern Wildcats and Michigan State Spartans will contest the Big Ten opener for both teams when they collide at Northwestern’s Ryan Field on Saturday afternoon.
Defense not the problem
Michigan State is looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season, which came via a 10-7 decision against visiting Arizona State this past weekend. The Spartans had previously defeated Tulsa (28-7) and Western Michigan (51-17). Their defense was once again stingy, limiting the Sun Devils to what should have been a crippling 216 yards of total offense. For a while it was impossible for Arizona to find the endzone, as the visitors went into the fourth quarter with just three points. But a touchdown with 50 seconds remaining gave ASU the lead and it held on when Michigan State’s tying field goal was waved off due to 12 men being on the field.
“You better be able to regroup,” head coach Mike Dantonio assured. “If you can’t regroup then that’s a problem. We will regroup, I can promise you that. We will coach with energy, I can promise you that. I can promise you that we will address the issues, and we will continue to get better.”
If there is one thing that cannot get any better it’s the Michigan State run defense. Sparty is surrendering a meager 23.3 yards per game on the ground through three contests. Arizona State gained only 76 rushing yards, averaging fewer than three yards per attempt. Tulsa, one of the proudest programs in the nation when it comes to rushing the football, “gained” negative-73 yards on the ground; that’s right: negative-73!
Rush offense vs. run defense
The Wildcats have played only twice so far, having enjoyed an off week in between their loss at Stanford and home win over UNLV. Northwestern is hoping to build on its head-to-head victory in 2018, when it went on the road and toppled the Spartans 29-19 on Oct. 6. The ‘Cats beat Michigan State in triple-overtime the last time these two teams clashed at Northwestern (Oct. 28, 2017).
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Perhaps the biggest key to the rematch will be the battle between Northwestern’s rushing attack and Michigan State’s run defense. The Wildcats are averaging 184.5 yards per game on the ground after redshirt freshman Drake Anderson churned out 141 yards and a touchdown during last week’s 30-14 defeat of UNLV. Anderson did not lose any eligibility after playing almost none in 2018 (he got two carries against Michigan State).
“I’m just gonna pray,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald joked, referring to how his team is going to run the ball on Michigan State. “Hope it all works out…. I think it’s just opportunity (for Anderson). He was really close to playing and last year. We actually went up to Michigan State really not sure where we were at yet. We were very unsettled at the position and you saw him get a little bit of time in that game. So just opportunity presented itself and he’s ready. I think he’s a big-time player, I think he’s going to be a great player for us for a long time. And I told you guys at the start of camp, I felt pretty solid about that room. We just got to keep getting an experience.”
“They make it really hard, they’re really good,” Fitzgerald continued. “They know exactly what they’re doing and exactly how they want to stop you… We’re gonna be one-on-one. We’re gonna have to win, because they’re not going to allow you to outnumber them in any way, shape or form in the run game.”
The key for the Wildcats will be the performance of Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, who has struggled with accuracy in the first two games as the quarterback. He’s completed just 18 of 42 for 220 yards passing this season with one touchdown and three interceptions.
The Michigan State Spartans are:
- 1-6 ATS in their last seven overall
- 1-5 ATS in their last six games on grass
- 0-4 ATS in their last four games after scoring less than 20 points in their previous game
The Northwestern Wildcats are:
- 20-6-1 ATS in their last 27 conference games
- 5-1-1 ATS in their last seven games against teams with winning records
- 4-1 ATS in their last five games against Michigan State