View from the other side: Northwestern at MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football because of a recent diagnosis of cervical stenosis.

Northwestern at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Northwestern 1-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-1, 1-0

Line: Michigan State by 11

View from the other side

Louie Vaccher covers Northwestern football and is publisher and managing editor of WildcatReport, the Rivals site covering the Wildcats. He breaks down the Wildcats for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Northwestern game at Spartan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @WildcatReport.

Question: How has Jeremy Larkin being forced to retire affected the Wildcats?

Answer: Larkin was Northwestern’s most dynamic threat on an offense that has struggled throughout the season. You could pencil him in for 100 yards rushing and several catches in the passing game. So losing him is like losing the leg of a table — it might stand for a while, but it’s going to wobble badly, and sooner or later it will collapse.

The first week without Larkin did not go well as Northwestern’s running game went in reverse against Michigan: 34 carries for 28 yards. Even if you take away the 43 yards of losses from Michigan’s six sacks, Northwestern still ran for just 81 yards. Yes, Michigan has a ferocious front seven, and Northwestern’s offensive line was banged up, but it’s not going to be any easier against Michigan State.

John Moten IV, a redshirt junior who has been productive in short stints throughout his career, is now the primary ballcarrier for the Wildcats. He has better top-end speed than Larkin, but he doesn’t have Larkin’s wiggle and doesn’t make many tacklers miss. That’s critical because NU doesn’t have the kind of physical offensive line that can blow open gaping holes.

More: Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Wolverines, Spartans need more pop in their offense

Northwestern will try to help Moten shoulder the load by using a committee approach. Last week, wide receiver/kick returner Solomon Vault played for the first time since 2016 and got seven carries. True freshman running back Isaiah Bowser got one carry and wide receiver Riley Lees had two rushes as the Wildcat (no pun intended) quarterback. That was another role that the versatile Larkin once filled.

Question: Is Clayton Thorson back to 100 percent?

Answer: I don’t know if we can say 100 percent, but he’s pretty close. He gets asked questions like that just about every time he talks to the media and his answer is almost invariably, “I feel fine.”

More: Why is Michigan State's offense stuck in a rut?

Thorson has shown quite a bit of mobility the last couple weeks — unfortunately, it’s often because he’s running for his life. He has also taken quite a few hits: Northwestern has allowed 12 sacks in four games, the most in the Big Ten and more than 104 other teams in the country. Last week against Michigan was the first time this season that Thorson went wire-to-wire in a game. He had previously been sharing snaps with backup TJ Green, but the coaches slowly weaned Green out of the lineup to give Thorson a bigger and bigger load. Still, coaches this year are using Wildcat QBs — first Larkin, now Lees — to run the option and reduce the number of hits that Thorson takes. He used to run those option plays, too.

Question: Will the Wildcats even try to run the ball against MSU’s No. 1 run defense?

Answer: They can’t abandon the run entirely. I don’t expect Northwestern to have much of a rushing attack, but they will continue to give the ball to Moten & Co. throughout the game just to keep the defense honest and slow down the rush. The Wildcat offensive line has enough problems protecting the quarterback, so they don’t want Kenny Willekes and the Spartans to be able to pin their ears back and rush the passer without giving a second thought to defending the run.

You’ll also see Northwestern use screen passes for the same purpose. The Wildcats’ most explosive play last week was a bubble screen to Kyric McGowan that went for 36 yards. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall thinks of screens and short passes as “extended handoffs” and he’ll sprinkle them in throughout the game to keep Northwestern from being one-dimensional.

Question: After three losses in a row, is there a bounce-back in store for NW like last season?

Answer: If history tells us anything, it’s that Northwestern knows how to bounce back from bad games or losing streaks. They certainly have had a lot of practice. In 2016, the Wildcats came out and lost their first two games, at home, to Western Michigan and (gasp!) Illinois State and then rebounded to win four of the next five. Just last year they started 2-3 before winning their last eight, including a bowl game.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Northwestern

Northwestern fans are focused on three straight home losses that came after blowing early leads. But lost in that narrative is the fact that the Wildcats held a lead on the No. 14 team in the nation for almost 56 minutes. To pull off the upset on Saturday, however, Northwestern will have to find a way to score in the second half — something they’ve done in only one of their four games, believe it or not.

Question: Why does NW seem to have MSU’s number, entering the game having won three of four and two straight on the road?

Answer: It might seem that way, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t think so. “I don’t know if we’ve had a lot of success (against Michigan State),” he said during his Monday press conference. “We’ve won. We’ll take that. We found a way, both games, we found a way. They were not pretty at all on our end.”

Pretty or not, they look awfully good in the W column. I think that Northwestern matches up pretty well stylistically with Michigan State. The Spartans like to run the ball and the Wildcats are typically pretty stout against the run. This year, that may be more difficult than usual for MSU without LJ Scott, and the passing game will be hindered by the loss of star wideout Cody White, who torched Northwestern for nine catches and 165 yards last season. Defensively, Michigan State will give you the underneath routes, and that’s always been Northwestern’s bread-and-butter. I expect that to be the Wildcats’ game plan on Saturday — to let Thorson go to work and build drives with dinks and dunks.

Michigan linebacker Josh Uche sacks Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson to seal the win for the Wolverines on the last play last week.

Players to watch

Clayton Thorson, Sr., QB: Thorson has started all 43 games he’s played in his career but last week’s matchup with Michigan was the first time this season he went the entire game as he has slowly come back from a leg injury suffered in last season’s Music City Bowl. At 28-15, Thorson is the winningest quarterback in program history with two of those wins coming against MSU, in which he has averaged 323.5 yards passing while completing 72.3 percent of his passes.

Flynn Nagel, Sr., WR: Nagel has a reception in 22 consecutive games, the second-longest active streak in the Big Ten. Through four games, he’s averaging 6.5 catches a game, which is good for second in the conference and 21st in the nation. Nagel had 87 yards receiving in last season’s matchup while catching the winning touchdown pass in the third overtime.

Paddy Fisher, So., LB: The first sophomore captain in the Pat Fitzgerald era, Fisher is coming off a season when he was named a Freshman All-American while being named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year by the Big Ten Network after recording 113 tackles. Fisher is averaging 8.5 tackles a game this season, sixth-best in the conference.

Facts and figures

Tough opponent: The Wildcats have had the Spartans’ number, especially in East Lansing. They’ve won the last two matchups at Spartan Stadium and coach Pat Fitzgerald is 3-1 on the road in his career against MSU. Northwestern has won three of four in the series and is looking to win its third straight overall.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald directs his team against Akron earlier this season.

Rough road: Michigan State continues to be the best defense in the nation against the run, allowing just 40.3 yards a game on the ground. The Spartans have held the last seven opponents to less than 100 yards rushing, the longest stretch since doing the same for 12 consecutive games over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Conversely, Northwestern is averaging just 94.8 yards a game rushing.

Takeaways: Michigan State is tied for first in the Big Ten with seven interceptions from seven different players. The seven interceptions have accounted for all of the Spartans’ takeaways this season through four games. They’ll hope to take advantage of a Northwestern offense that has thrown three interceptions.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau