Northwestern at Michigan State - GAME PREDICTION

Northwestern at Michigan State - GAME PREDICTION

Columnists

Northwestern at Michigan State - GAME PREDICTION

Saturday’s Homecoming game against 1-3 Northwestern at Spartan Stadium presents Michigan State (3-1, 1-0) with a huge opportunity to jumpstart the season and head into the teeth of the schedule riding high.

Contact @crowleysullivan

For the majority of the first six weeks of this season for Michigan State, there has been a feeling that the Spartans are struggling, that they can’t find the right rhythms and schemes, and that they aren’t living up to the expectations that were sky high prior to the season starting.

Some – much? – of this is, perhaps, justified as the Spartans have not been overly impressive.

The season opener against Utah State opened up the doors for many concerns even though Brian Lewerke, Felton Davis, and Joe Bachie found ways to get a victory with a 38-31 final score over the challenging Aggies.

A week later, Michigan State led Arizona State 13-3 in the fourth quarter and it was looking like the Spartans were going to head back to East Lansing with an impressive road win over a tough opponent in a hostile sauna in Tempe.

The Spartans couldn’t put the Sun Devils away, ASU’s veterans were able to make a few plays that closed the gap, tied the game, and then Michigan State was defeated on the final play of the game.

Through those first two games, the running game couldn’t get moving.

A bye week felt like a bye month as the bitter taste of the loss to Arizona State seemed to get worse with each passing hour.

Michigan State traveled to Bloomington to face what was a 3-0 Indiana team and, while the Spartans came away with a 35-21 victory, fans and experts didn’t have the sense that this was a team headed for big things this season.

A strange dip out of the conference schedule to wrap up the non-conference part of the slate was next with Central Michigan at Spartan Stadium.

Even though Michigan State led 31-3 at one point late in the third quarter, a final score of 31-20 left people dissatisfied.

Through four games, the Spartans haven’t been able to find a rhythm, haven’t been able to show the ability to play a full four quarters of dominating football, and they haven’t been able to find an overall identity.

Along with all of that, this Michigan State team hasn’t been able to convince anyone that it’s a team that belongs in the Big Ten Championship race.

Here’s a fact that doesn’t seem to be getting too much attention right now, however:

A victory on Saturday over Northwestern would get Michigan State to a 4-1 overall record and a 2-0 mark in the Big Ten.

It would also secure Top 20 status with humongous opportunities ahead for the Spartans to tell their own story, crush the negative narratives, and pound home the notion that they are every bit as much of a contender for the conference title as anyone else might be.

First things first, though – Northwestern must be beaten.

Michigan State’s rushing defense is the #1 unit in the nation – the Wildcats aren’t going to be able to run the ball on Saturday.

Jeremy Larkin was the Wildcats running back horse heading into this season but his retirement from football just last week leaves the Cats with few options to establish much of a ground attack that generated a total of 28 yards in last week’s 20-17 loss to UMAA.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson managed to pile up 356 yards through the air last season against the Spartans in the Wildcats triple overtime 39-31 win at Evanston.

In last year’s game, Thorson found his receivers on underneath crossing routes all afternoon – and Thorson managed to escape the Michigan State pass rush enough to extend drives and do the damage necessary in regulation and in the three overtime periods.

Last season, Michigan State sacked Thorson once.

Through four games this season, the Wildcats have allowed opposing defenses to sack Thorson 12 times.

Thorson suffered a knee injury in Northwestern’s Music City Bowl win over Kentucky and his mobility isn’t what it once was.

In last week’s loss to UMAA, Thorson was sacked six times.

Combine Thorson’s decreased elusiveness with the surging Michigan State pass rush and there is a recipe for a good day for the Spartans in terms of getting to the quarterback.

If the Spartans can create pressure and disrupt Thorson in a meaningful way, the way he lit up the Michigan State defense with those underneath crossing routes will become less likely.

Meanwhile, Brian Lewerke had the game of his life last season against Northwestern when he threw for 445 yards and four touchdowns.

Lewerke also ran the ball for 30 yards in last year’s game.

In last week’s win over Central Michigan, Lewerke showed signs of recapturing the dual-threat nature of his game from last season that has been missing a bit through four games.

Everyone knows – mostly Lewerke – that he has the legs to add 30, 40 or 50 yards to Michigan State’s rushing attack.

Even with a receiving corps that will miss Cody White due to the broken hand he sustained against Central Michigan, Lewerke has reliable and dangerous weapons in Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart, Jalen Nailor, Cam Chambers, and Brandon Sowards who will all be available and ready to pick Lewerke and the offense up.

Northwestern’s defense has a killer in linebacker Paddy Fisher – but Fisher can’t do everything.

The Wildcats have surrendered 226 yards per game through the air.

Last week against UMAA, Shea Patterson had several escapes out of the pocket that should give Lewerke and the Spartans reason to think that Lewerke can pile up yards through the air while also taking advantage of opportunities to tuck and run for big chunks of yards.

There is chatter about Cole Chewins being able to play more than just a few downs here and there.

Might the Spartan offensive line be about ready to finally find its cohesiveness and develop a rhythm that allows this team to run the ball somewhat effectively?

Might this be the afternoon when Brian Lewerke puts it all together and, in addition to mixing in some timely runs with a powerful air attack with his collection of receivers, can he avoid the errors, particularly the ones that have come in the redzone, and lead the Spartans to a win that can give this team a peek at the huge opportunities that are just ahead.

For all of the concerns, critiques, worries, injuries, what-ifs, and eye rolls through the month of September, this Michigan State team isn’t the 1997 Spartans.

For all of the frustrating moments that have caused some to wonder why Michigan State isn’t playing in the College Football Playoff right now, these are not the 2005 Spartans.

For all of the questions about why Brian Lewerke isn’t Tom Brady, he’s not Todd Schultz or Gus Ornstein or Stephen Reaves.

For all of the worry about how the secondary has given up far too many yards through the air, Chris Smeland is not in charge of this defense and Jaren Hayes is not playing cornerback against Braylon Edwards on Saturday.

And for all of the hand wringing over what has been a less-than-satisfying first month of the season, by 4p Saturday afternoon, Spartans of all ages will be enjoying yet another beautiful Homecoming weekend along the banks of the Red Cedar while they stop and recognize that the Spartans will head to game #6 in Happy Valley with a 4-1, 2-0 record – and a surging team that has continued to find the ways to improve and build more and more confidence and momentum.

NORTHWESTERN – 17

MICHIGAN STATE – 30

Latest

More SpartansWire
Home