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Advance Scouting: Michigan State

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Michigan State
(Daily file photo by Jacob Morgan)

When Northwestern last traveled to East Lansing, Michigan — Nov. 17, 2012 — the Wildcats encountered a Michigan State team struggling due to poor play at the quarterback position.

Despite touting future NFL star Le’Veon Bell at running back, the Spartans were hampered by quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who completed just 22-of-46 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions that day as NU emerged with a 23-20 victory.

Two games later, Michigan State made the bold decision to switch to backup Connor Cook midway through their bowl game. They rallied to beat TCU and then rode Cook to a 13-1 record the following season, including a 30-6 romp over the Cats in Evanston — the two teams’ most recent overall meeting.

Now, with NU returning to East Lansing Saturday, the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) find themselves in a similar situation to 2012.

The defending conference champions have lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2009: a 30-6 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin, a 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana and then a demoralizing 31-14 defeat at home against BYU last week. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has faltered recently, and coach Mark Dantonio has hinted about upcoming personnel changes.

All of that in mind, the Cats will seek to exploit a historically strong program that finds itself at its weakest point in years.

Michigan State’s biggest strengths: In the standard Big Ten mold, Michigan State is effective running the ball and stingy against the run. 

The Spartans have allowed just 3.6 yards per carry this season, good for 32nd in the nation — nothing new for a team that has finished each of the past five seasons ranked in the top 25 in the category. They’ve managed only 16 tackles for loss this season, excluding sacks, but have also surrendered few lengthy runs, keeping opponent running backs consistently near the line of scrimmage.

On the offensive side of the ball, running back L.J. Scott proved a reliable, smashmouth runner during his 2015 freshman campaign, which he finished with a career-high 22 carries in the Big Ten Championship Game. Gerald Holmes also had his share of big performances, including a 117-yard explosion against Nebraska.

This fall, Scott racked up 203 total yards in Michigan State’s season-opening wins against Furman and Notre Dame combined, but he has struggled since and was out-touched 15-3 by Holmes against BYU. The Spartans will likely hit NU with a steady dose of the two runners.

Michigan State’s biggest weakness: Michigan State’s vaunted defensive line, featuring projected first-round pick Malik McDowell, has produced a mere five sacks in five games (the Cats, by comparison, have 12) — and zero in the last two games.

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill not only avoided sacks but also scrambled for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Third downs have been an issue on both sides of the ball, as well.

Indiana and BYU were both above 50 percent on third-down conversion rate against the Spartans’ defense — 9-for-16 and 10-for-16, respectively. Meanwhile, Michigan State has converted only 33 percent of its own third down situations in the last three games; that would rank 112th in the country on its own and has dropped the team’s season average (38.6 percent) to 73rd.

Michigan State’s biggest question mark: The team’s quarterback controversy has dominated storylines in East Lansing over the past several days.

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor first showed cracks against Wisconsin, completing only 18-of-38 passes for zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and then was benched in favor of junior Damion Terry during the BYU loss. Freshman and former highly-touted recruit Brian Lewerke — who has only four career pass attempts — is also in the mix.

Dantonio has avoided commenting on the situation and no starter has yet been announced for this coming weekend. Inexperienced NU cornerbacks Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo could have an easier-than-usual matchup against whichever signal caller they face.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern fans can begin making Homecoming plans, as the Wildcats announced Wednesday the date and time of next season’s Homecoming game.

NU will take on Indiana on Saturday, Oct. 22, with the Homecoming game’s kickoff set for 11 a.m . It’ll be the first time the Cats have faced the Hoosiers since 2012.

Other Big Ten teams have announced their Homecoming game dates and times as well, bringing more clarity to NU’s schedule next season. The Cats are slated to face Iowa on Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. and Michigan State on Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. for both schools’ respective Homecomings.

NU supporters will hope for a better outcome than last season’s Homecoming game. That day, the Cats were run over by then-No. 17 Iowa, 40-10.