Northwestern Offense - What To Look For, What To Stop

Northwestern Offense - What To Look For, What To Stop

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Northwestern Offense - What To Look For, What To Stop

Don’t be fooled by Northwestern’s 1-3 record. The Spartans have a shot at getting to 4-1, 2-0 in the Big Ten – but they must be focused and prepared to take on a dangerous and talented Wildcat team at Spartan Stadium.

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We’ve touched on it already – since 2012, Northwestern has won three out of four games against Michigan State.

Last year’s 39-31 triple overtime win over Michigan State in Evanston was the Wildcats’ second straight victory over the Spartans.

If we go back all the way to 2000, the series record between these two teams is an even 7-7.

During the Dantonio Era, Michigan State did win four straight from 2008-2011 – however, neither team can claim any sort of dominance over the other for what is close to twenty years now.

The triple overtime thriller last year in Evanston was, indeed, a thriller.

Michigan State never really got much of an offensive rhythm going in Evanston last year (sound familiar?) but managed to tie the score at 17 with a terrific final drive after taking over with 3:14 left in the game and starting at its own 12-yard line.

On that final drive – and throughout the game against Northwestern – the 2017 Spartans found much of their identity in the way they hung tough and found the inches.

Brian Lewerke calmly and cooly led the Spartans over the final 3:14 – the Spartans only needed one 3rd down conversion en route to tying the game.

With 25 seconds left, Lewerke connected with Cody White on 1st down from the Northwestern 13-yard line – White made an acrobatic catch in the endzone, managing to stay inbounds and corral the ball, knotting the score at 17.

The teams exchanged touchdowns for two overtime periods and Michigan State’s attempt to tie the score at 39 in the third overtime came up short when Lewerke threw an interception in the endzone after being chased from the pocket as the play broke down.

Lewerke had a prolific day – he was 39 of 57 for 445 yards with 4 touchdowns.  It was a legendary performance that, unfortunately, didn’t end with a victory.

Northwestern veteran quarterback Clayton Thorson – a 6’4″, 224 pound senior from Wheaton North High School – finished his day having completed 33 of 48 passes for 368 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Thorson managed to find open spaces underneath Michigan State’s coverage and the NU receivers flummoxed the Spartans with crossing routes all afternoon.

Can Michigan State’s defense learn from last season’s mistakes and clamp down on the Cats’ underneath passing scheme?

Thorson was a question mark heading into this season after injuring his knee in Northwestern’s victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl – a victory that earned the Wildcats their second 10-win season in the last three years and third since Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach in 2006.

The senior worked hard in the offseason to rehab that knee and he’s been the unquestioned leader for this offense from the start of the season.

Thorson is a savvy and talented veteran who has piled up these numbers four games into the 2018 season:

  • 87 of 143 (60.8%) for 927 yards and 3 touchdowns against 3 interceptions.

Those numbers have come in a 31-27 win at Purdue, a 21-7 home loss to Duke, a 39-34 loss at Akron, and this past Saturday’s 20-17 loss to UMAA in Evanston.

Thorson has a batch of reliable options he’s gone to through the air:

Flynn Nagel is a 5’11”, 195 pound senior who has hauled in 26 passes for 291 yards and no touchdowns so far this season.  If anyone out there remembers former Spartan Agim Shabaj, Shabaj is a fair comparison to Nagel.

Bennet Skowronek is a 6’4″, 211 pound junior who has 17 catches for 197 yards with 1 touchdown.  Brian Linthicum comes to mind.

Cameron Green is a 6’3″, 237 pound junior with 17 catches for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns.  I can’t really think of a Spartan that’s comparable so I’m gonna go with Ziel Kavanaght.

John Moten IV is Northwestern’s sophomore running back – a 6’0″, 200 pounder who had to take over the reigns after Jeremy Larkin retired from football due to a neck injury.

With Larkin gone, Northwestern does not have what has come to be a standard component of Northwestern football under Fitzgerald – a reliable ball carrier.

Moten IV ran for 36 yards on 13 carries against UMAA this past Saturday – he’s gained 57 yards on the season.

Thorson, himself, is not much of a threat to tuck and run – he has -67 yards on the ground so far this season.

Northwestern’s offensive line has allowed 12 sacks for 79 yards so far this season.

Can Michigan State’s surging pass rush take yet another step forward by getting to Thorson?

The Wildcats are averaging 95 rushing yards per game to go along with 274 passing yards per game.

Those last stats seem to point to the idea that Michigan State’s #1 rushing defense may be able to shut down the Wildcats on the ground and the Spartan secondary – and particularly the linebackers who need to cover a lot of ground – have to clamp down on the crossing routes underneath.

A big key in this game for Michigan State – can that surging pass rush that has started to suggest that it’s in the process of becoming a part of this team’s identity force Thorson out of his rhythm and disrupt the Wildcats’ ability to connect on the crossing routes underneath and in the soft spots of the Spartan defense?

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