Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the UM-Maryland and MSU-Northwestern games this weekend. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Sometimes a team just has your number.
Every team seems to have one — that team on the schedule that, no matter how each is playing that season, seems to be the proverbial thorn in the side.
For No. 20 Michigan State, that team over the years has been Northwestern.
Mark Dantonio is 5-4 in his tenure against the Wildcats, who have won three of four in the series and have won two in a row at Spartan Stadium. A win this season improve Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s record to 4-1 in games played in East Lansing.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a lot of success,” Fitzgerald said this week, downplaying how his tams have fared against the Spartans. “We’ve won, and I’ll take that. … They were not pretty, at all, on our end.
“We found a way to win and that’s what it’s all about.”
Pretty or not, the Wildcats always give the Spartans (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) a fight. Since Dantonio has been Michigan State’s coach, beginning in 2007, the Spartans have only had an easy time twice — in 2008 and in 2013. Both of those matchups were on the road while the lone victory at home was a 24-14 result in 2009.
“We have always had great games with them,” Dantonio said. “We have won our share, they have won some. However, maybe they have won their share.”
The last two seasons, the Wildcats have won shootouts. They scored 54 points at Spartan Stadium in 2016 and put 39 on the board last season, though it took three overtimes for quarterback Clayton Thorson and the offense to come to life.
That matchup became an offensive battle as quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 445 yards while leading the Spartans to the tying touchdown with less than a minute to play in regulation. However, Thorson threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns, the last a 22-yarder to Flynn Nagel in the third overtime for what proved to be the winner.
“You can’t play three plays well and one play poorly especially when that one poor play is a big play,” MSU defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “If you look at every one of those overtime periods there was at least one play that was a significant chunk and put us in a mode where we are really behind the sticks and we are the ones on the defensive instead of being able to be on the offensive.”
While Tressel lamented the mistakes made by his unit last season, the Wildcats have done the opposite.
“They don’t beat themselves,” junior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “If any one of 11 guys on the defense is off pace for a second they exploit that.”
Added junior defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, “They’ll take advantage of one person on the field not doing their job and hit an explosive play. We’ve got to know 100 percent what we’re doing. Everyone has to be on the same page.”
The Wildcats (1-3, 1-1) haven’t taken advantage much this season. After winning the opener at Purdue, Northwestern has lost three straight, including last week against Michigan when it built a 17-0 lead only to watch it disappear.
But Dantonio isn’t allowing the Wildcats’ struggles to affect the Spartans.
“Northwestern comes to town, good football team,” Dantonio said. “I think their record sort of underestimates what they are as a football program, what they are as a football team. I think they’ve played very, very well.”
Northwestern had a similar start last season, with three losses in its first five games before winning its final eight. For Michigan State to keep a similar resurgence from beginning Saturday, it will need to get its offense rolling, starting with the ground game.
Senior running back LJ Scott could be back after missing the last two games with an ankle injury while junior left tackle Cole Chewins is close to 100 percent. And if Lewerke manages to have a game like he did last season, it would go a long way toward getting the Spartans’ offense untracked.
However, without receivers Cody White and possibly Darrell Stewart Jr., it will be even more important for Lewerke to limit the turnovers that have plagued him this season.
“I'm just trying to make smart decisions," Lewerke said. “Most of the turnovers I'd say haven't been on poor decisions, it's just been bad throws, honestly. I don't think I've really been trying to do too much, just not putting the ball in the right spot.”
His performance last season against Northwestern will likely be a boost for Lewerke. In his second year as Michigan State’s starter, Lewerke has a comfort level, one his coach doesn’t think will be affected by a slow start this season.
“Confidence is not a problem and experience should not be a problem,” Dantonio said. “So it's now just got to do the things that you have to do game to game on a consistent level to be successful and that's what every quarterback has to do.”
Dantonio vs. Northwestern
Mark Dantonio is 5-4 against Northwestern as Michigan State coach:
2007: At MSU, L 48-41
2008: At Northwestern, W 37-20
2009: At MSU, W 24-14
2010: At Northwestern, W 35-27
2011: At Northwestern, W 35-17
2012: At MSU, L 23-20
2013: At Northwestern, W 30-6
2016: At MSU, L 54-40
2017: At Northwestern, L 39-31
Northwestern at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Northwestern 1-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-1, 1-0
Line: Michigan State by 11