Bob Wojnowski, Tony Paul and Matt Charboneau preview the MSU-Northwestern and UM-Wisconsin games. The Detroit News
East Lansing – Maybe a fresh start is exactly what Michigan State needs.
There’s no taking back what happened in last week’s loss at home to Arizona State, but as the Spartans prepare to hit the road and take on Northwestern at noon Saturday in Evanston, Ill., it does offer a chance for a bit of a reset.
After all, Michigan State (2-1) has yet to play a Big Ten game, and that means any designs on winning a conference championship haven’t been damaged.
At least not yet.
“Yeah, we're 0-0 in the Big Ten,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “So you know, we know all of our stuff is ahead of us.”
All of their stuff, of course, means competing in the Big Ten East with a chance to get back to the conference championship game, a place the Spartans haven’t been since 2015. But to get there, things will have to start changing rather dramatically, primarily on the offensive side of the ball.
And it must begin this week as Michigan State opens Big Ten play against a team that happens to be the defending Big Ten West champion and has won three in a row in the series. The Spartans have only one win the last five meetings, beating the Wildcats at Ryan Field in 2013. Since then, it’s been all Northwestern.
“I don't know, they’re smart guys over there,” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said when asked what it was that has given the Wildcats the edge. “They execute very well, they know exactly what they're doing. And like I said they do it to a high level. We gotta be ready to go. Their thing is they're going to execute better than we do and that's how they're gonna win the football game. But we have to come with the mindset of, ‘No, we're gonna try to play perfect this game and we're going to dominate.’”
Dominating on both sides of the ball would be a big step for Michigan State. With non-conference play in the rearview mirror, the Spartans will now enter the most critical part of the season.
“We go through phases here,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Well, this is phase three now. Phase three started whether we won or lost. Everything else gets wiped away. If we were 3-0, it would be wiped away, too. Maybe not for the peripheral people, but in the big scheme of things, this game is more important than the last game and the next game will always be more important.”
It's important because it means Michigan State starts at the same place as ever other team, and that creates the feeling of a fresh start.
However, the perceived fresh start doesn’t change the offensive woes the Spartans have experienced in two of the first three games this season. They’ve managed just one offensive touchdown in the Tulsa and Arizona State games, but they do feel like progress was made last week by gaining 404 total yards.
“Last year, you could kind of say the plays weren't working and we weren't getting yards but this year we're getting yards,” Lewerke said. “We're getting drives and it's just coming down to that last third down in the red zone that we’ve got to convert or not turn the ball over when we get on the plus side of the field. So just stuff like that, which, you know, in theory is an easy fix, but we actually have got to do it.
“It feels like every time we come off the field, you feel like, ‘Yeah, we're moving ball fine.’ We’ve just got to finish drives and get points.”
Doing so against the Northwestern defense will be easier said than done.
The Wildcats have been stingy on defense, led by end Joe Gaziano and linebacker Paddy Fisher. Gaziano had nine tackles in last week’s win over UNLV along with 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Fisher added seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble for a Wildcats defense that ranks 28th in the nation in passing defense and recorded five sacks against UNLV.
“They're disciplined team, they know what they're doing,” Lewerke said. “They're well coached and it’s tough to kind of get them in bad spots. So we'll do our best to try and make some plays.”
There will be an added bonus beyond just getting off to a good start in the Big Ten for a handful of Spartans. Twelve players are from the state of Illinois, including four starters.
On the defense alone, Raequan Williams is from Chicago while Mike and Jacub Panasiuk are from Roselle, Ill. Backup tackle Naquan Jones is from Evanston, growing up in Northwestern’s shadow. Another offensive starter, center Matt Allen, is from Hinsdale while injured left tackle Kevin Jarvis is from Chicago.
Others from Illinois include DT Dashaun Mallory (Bolingbrook), WR Cade McDonald (Naperville), WR Jayden Reed (Naperville), FB Max Rosenthal (Winnetka), QB Payton Thorne (Naperville) and RB Anthony Williams (Chicago).
“It means everything,” said Williams, who has yet to beat the Wildcats. “This is the last time everyone will be in Chicago to play a Big Ten football game and we are definitely motivated, and we want to have everybody ready to play. I gotta win the least one of these.”
If he does, that likely means Michigan State’s offense has started to finish drives and the defense has put last week’s final-drive lapse behind them.
It also likely means the Spartans have wiped the slate clean, ended their skid against the Wildcats and are ready to turn things around in the Big Ten.
“It's got to be that road dog mindset,” Bachie said. “You’ve got to understand we're all going together as a business trip. We're not going there to see Chicago. It’s get to the hotel, we're going to watch film, get ready to go into Evanston and play the Wildcats and it will be a good one.”
Michigan State at Northwestern
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Records: Michigan State 2-1, Northwestern 1-1
Line: Michigan State by 9.5