Michigan State Football: Northwestern will be a tough test again in 2019

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 6: Running back Weston Bridges #27 of the Michigan State Spartans is tackled by linebacker Paddy Fisher #42 of the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Spartan Stadium on October 6, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 6: Running back Weston Bridges #27 of the Michigan State Spartans is tackled by linebacker Paddy Fisher #42 of the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Spartan Stadium on October 6, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The 2019 season will provide a few major tests for Michigan State football, but none will be larger in the opening month than Northwestern — again.

Rewind to 2018, a year with high aspirations for the Spartans got off to a rough start after struggling to take down Utah State and falling to Arizona State by a lackluster score of 16-13. Michigan State needed redemption, and a win against an “average” Big Ten West team in Northwestern was the perfect way to keep rolling after rattling off back to back wins against Indiana and Central Michigan.

The outcome? A Homecoming weekend spoiled by Pat Fitzgerald leaving many Spartan fans with a feeling that would be all too familiar for several weeks to follow.

Go back even further to 2017, Michigan State managed to rally off four consecutive wins, including one against then No. 7 Michigan. A win at Northwestern would keep the Spartans in direct competition with Ohio State for the Big Ten East division. The game was an exciting shootout in which both quarterbacks combined for 801 yards in the air and six touchdowns.

The game went to a third overtime period where Brian Lewerke had the ball batted away from his hand. He panicked, heaved the ball into the endzone, and was intercepted to end the game.

Back in 2016, the year no one wants to remember only got more disappointing after losing to BYU at Spartan Stadium. A victory on Homecoming could ignite some hope for Spartan fans and could propel them to victories over Maryland and Illinois en route to a possible bowl game. Michigan State fell by a score of 54-40 to the Wildcats, and they did not beat Illinois or Maryland, nor any other teams besides Rutgers.

After a conversation in a group chat with some of my buddies at Impact Sports, I started to realize the importance of Michigan State’s matchup with Northwestern.

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When the Spartans travel to Evanston to take on Northwestern in Week 4, it will be a test for both teams. Not only could Michigan State use a victory over a team it hasn’t fared well against in recent memory, but beating a team that three of its last four years ended with 9-10 wins would be a great win early in the season.

This is a game that isn’t necessarily flying under the radar in terms of importance, but it’s a game that should be talked about more.

Northwestern has aspirations to get back to the Big Ten title game in a division that looks tougher than it has been in the past few years. Michigan State looks to end the season with at least 10 wins in what has always been a very good division. This matchup could be an early telling of what both teams’ seasons will be.

Michigan State will be showcasing its new offense under Brad Salem this year, and its first conference matchup is the perfect time to show what Salem brings to the table.

Lewerke will be back after a shoulder injury prevented him from what could have been a great season and a suffocating defense will mostly be returned.

The Wildcats have notably struggled early in the year before managing to finish the season hot with an aforementioned 9-10 wins. The beginning of the season is ultimately what’s separating Northwestern from being a top 15, or even a top 10 team.

Transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson, who was a five-star player in high school, hasn’t started a football game since his senior year of high school in 2016. He is almost certainly the Week 1 starter. Putting him up against one of the best defenses in the country will be a good way to tell what the redshirt sophomore brings to the table.

Clayton Thorson was under center for all three of the previous matchups and was a second-year starter his first time playing the Spartans, so he went into his first time playing Michigan State with experience. Like most transfers, Johnson isn’t a veteran, but his talents in high school and long list of scholarship offers speak for themselves.

Northwestern’s offense returns a decent amount of talent that will be ready to take down Michigan State for the fourth consecutive time but having a play-caller that hasn’t been a starting quarterback since 2016 will be something the Spartans will look to take advantage of. The play-caller might be new, but most of the offense will be returning to back him up.

It’s difficult to come up with positives when going up against one of the class of 2017’s best quarterbacks without Justin Layne, Andrew Dowell and Khari Willis, but Michigan State does have the edge in experience. Returning eight starters that played on a defense allowing just over 17 points per game isn’t a bad deal.

Spartan defense has consistently been the best in the conference and, at its peak, some of the best in the nation. The real issue has been the offense, and if Mark Dantonio’s coaching shuffle works good enough to get just an above average offense, the Spartans should be walking out of Evanston with a win.

Northwestern’s defense last year was average. The Wildcats ranked No. 64 in total defense last year, giving up 5,472 yards which comes out to whopping 380.5 yards per game. Despite this, the Wildcats allowed just over 23 points per game. Michigan State’s biggest challenge will still be tested, however, in the run game. The Spartan defense might’ve led the nation in rush defense with an average of just under 80 yards per game, but Northwestern was No. 3 in the conference and No. 26 in the nation with just under 130 yards per game.

The Wildcats defend well against the run, and while Michigan State’s offense might need help all around, the run game must improve.

Michigan State has been outscored 122-90 in the last three years. The 2017 matchup saw Lewerke light up the field by throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns. Outside of his electrifying performance, however, the offensive line provided no support for the backfield as Lewerke was the leading rusher with 30 yards.

Connor Heyward was the team’s leading rusher with 529 yards and five touchdowns on the season which ranked No. 22 among Big Ten running backs, certainly not ideal. Injuries plagued the offensive line last year and the play-calling didn’t do the team any favors, either. Adding five-star guard Devontae Dobbs to the line, a player that could very well be a starter Week 1, should help the Spartans get some success on the ground.

Northwestern was No. 23 among Power Five schools in scoring defense with just over 23 points per game. Michigan State might be going up against a defense that isn’t good but isn’t great either, and it has struggled against worst defenses. The Wildcats’ run defense will be something to note as the offensive line should be fully healthy with a promising backfield in Heyward as well as La’Darius Jefferson and Jalen Nailor.

If Michigan State prevails and snaps its three-game losing streak to Northwestern, it will be an early sign that the Spartans might be on to something with their new offensive scheme. If the Wildcats continue their dominance over Dantonio, the Big Ten East see a repeat division winner and a team that has finally managed to get over its early-season struggles.

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This might not be a primetime matchup that will be talked about weeks in advance, but it very well could be a game that is looked back on when the season is all said and done.