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.