Michigan State continues to prepare for a potential springboard game at home this Saturday against Northwestern. The opportunity to move to 4-1 and 2-0 in the Big Ten would set the Spartans up for the push they’re anxious for. What type of challenge will the Northwestern defense present to Michigan State this Saturday at Spartan Stadium?
For all of the concerns regarding Michigan State’s generally underwhelming look through the first four games of this 2018 season, it’s worth taking a quick look at what happened last year in Evanston when the Spartans lost a triple overtime thriller to Northwestern, 39-31.
Brian Lewerke had the game of his life against the Wildcats and came within a whisker of carrying the Spartans on his back to a victory.
Lewerke was 39 of 57 for a whopping 445 yards through the air.
He had four touchdown throws.
His one interception came on the final play when he tried to force a throw as the play broke down. Lewerke knows more than anyone that it would have been best to chuck the ball away and to be able to live to play another down.
What does Lewerke’s performance last year mean for this Saturday when the Spartans (3-1, 1-0) take on the Wildcats (1-3, 1-1) on Homecoming in East Lansing?
It doesn’t mean anything, actually – however, there are elements of last year’s performance that we can point to when examining Northwestern’s defense.
First, though, let’s stop and recognize that there was, is, and probably always will be talk of how Northwestern has a way of figuring out how to dunk, dink, and confuse the Michigan State defense with underneath crossing routes.
There certainly is something to that – but what about those 445 yards and four touchdowns that Brian Lewerke threw last year against Northwestern?
No matter how Lewerke was able to pile up that yardage and find the endzone four times, he did just that.
Whether touchdown passes came in overtime or the first quarter, he found the endzone and piled up the yards.
Michigan State might still be searching for a way to establish the ground game in the way it wants to – but Lewerke and the Spartans didn’t just “establish” a way to be successful through the air against Northwestern last year, it’s fair to say that Michigan State torched Northwestern through the air.
For all of the concern over Michigan State’s pass defense, is it acceptable to look at the Northwestern pass defense and consider that Lewerke – with the benefit of knowing how he torched the Cats last season – might be heading into this game with a lot of confidence in his ability to find the open spaces, find his guys, pile up yards, and give the Spartans a shot at a very meaningful victory?
If we look at last year’s game and focus on the Spartans’ rushing performance, we see that Michigan State ended the game with a total of 95 yards on 30 carries.
The Spartans’ leading rusher last season in Evanston?
Lewerke. He carried the ball 9 times for 30 yards.
Last week and earlier this week, we advocated for Michigan State to
“let Lewerke be Lewerke” in the offense’s ongoing efforts to find an identity and find the ways to gain yards on the ground.
Are we asking Lewerke to play all 11 positions on the field when he’s leading the offense?
While that might be fun to watch, I don’t think that’s possible.
If, however, Lewerke picks up where he left off against Northwestern last season when it comes to the passing game, perhaps he can also sprinkle in some additional tuck-and-run opportunities to continue to recapture his dual-threat capabilities that were a major part of the team’s overall success last season.
Can Lewerke contribute to the slow improvement in the running game by gaining, say, 60 yards on the ground against Northwestern this Saturday?
I don’t think that’s unrealistic.
Aside from last season’s game between these two teams, how has Northwestern performed on defense through the Cats’ first four games and how will the NU defense potentially open up doors for the Spartans?
The Northwestern defense is led in all ways by linebacker Paddy Fisher.
Fisher is a Pat Fitzgerald type of player – and, frankly, he’s a a Mark Dantonio type of player.
Fisher is the 6’4″, 241 pound sophomore linebacker who is the emotional and physical leader of the Wildcat defense.
Fisher is a beast, of course.
Here are just a few of his bona fides from last season –
- Led the Wildcats and all FBS first-year players with 113 tackles and 65 solo tackles.
- Earned Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of American.
- Named Second-Team All-Big Ten by the media and Third Team by the coaches.
- Named the Big Ten Freshman Defensive Player of the Year by the Big Ten Network.
- Ranked fourth in the Big Ten in tackles.
- Had 19 tackles against Michigan State.
- Only Power 5 player to post at least two games with 18 tackles during the regular season.
- His 14 solo tackles against the Spartans were the most by a Power 5 player.
- Academic All-Big Ten.
We’ll say it again – Paddy Fisher is a beast.
He’d look good in Green & White.
Having said that, this is not an overly imposing defense and the numbers support this.
Through four games – three of which have been losses for Northwestern – the defensive stats looks like this:
- Opponents have gained a total of 662 yards on the ground for an average of 142.3 yards per game.
- Opponents average 4 yards per carry against the Cats.
- Opponents have rushed for 4 touchdowns so far against the Wildcat defense.
- Opponents have been 80 of 122 through the air for a total of 947 yards.
- Opponents have averaged 236 yards of passing per game.
- Opponents have averaged 12 yards per catch.
- Opponents are averaging 26 points per game.
- Opponents are 10 for 10 in the red zone against Northwestern – although, only five of those scores have been touchdowns.
What does all of this mean?
From the expert perspective of my typewriter in my mother’s basement, it looks like there is an opportunity for Brian Lewerke to take control of this game – and, perhaps, this season – by picking apart a pass defense that he’s already picked apart while also picking up some yards on the ground.
This isn’t to suggest that everything depends on Lewerke.
But when you have a guy who already had had the game of his life against this defense, why not follow the blueprint that led to that performance while sprinkling in some additional treats for the Spartans?
Last week against UMAA, Northwestern jumped out to a 17-0 lead.
UMAA looked like it was asleep and the Wildcats looked like they were on their way to a comfortable win.
However, over the course of the four quarters, UMAA wore down the NU defense and eventually had delivered enough gut punches to be able to pound the ball and get out of Evanston with a huge 20-17 win.
Of particular note when looking at the newsreel film of Northwestern’s loss to UMAA, Shea Patterson’s ability to find some running room played a significant role in UMAA’s ability to sustain drives.
Early in the 3rd quarter with Northwestern still leading 17-10, UMAA faced a 3rd and 6 at the UMAA 42 yard line.
Patterson escaped a collapsing pocket and ran for 12 yards that didn’t just give UMAA a first down, it gave UMAA the life they were looking for.
Five plays later, UMAA kicked a field goal to close the lead to 17-13 and Northwestern was on its heels for the rest of the game.
Brian Lewerke can – and should – learn from this, see that he can tuck and run throughout the game while also piling up yards through the air.
This game – specifically, Northwestern’s defense – presents Michigan State with an opportunity to develop the possible roadmap for success for not just this game but for the rest of the season.
It says here that the Spartans are going to begin to establish an offensive identity this Saturday against Northwestern and that identity is going to be predicated on making sure the Spartans’ best overall offensive player on the field makes as many plays as possible, however possible.