Michigan State at Northwestern: View from the other side

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State at Northwestern 

► Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill. 

► TV/radio: ABC/760

► Records: Michigan State 2-1, Northwestern 1-1 

► Line: Michigan State by 9.5

Hunter Johnson

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 Ryan Field. You can follow him on Twitter at @WildcatReport.

► Question: Can Hunter Johnson take another step this week as the starting QB?

► Vaccher: He’s going to have to if the Wildcats are going to have a chance to win. Johnson had an ugly debut against Stanford, completing just 6 of 17 passes for 55 yards, with two interceptions and a fumble recovered for a touchdown. He was much better last week – 12-of-25 for 165 yards, with one TD and one pick – and showed some flashes of the quarterback Northwestern fans had hoped to see this season. He threw a beautiful 50-yard touchdown pass to J.J. Jefferson that hit him right in stride, and he would’ve had a couple more long scoring strikes if his receivers could’ve held onto the ball.

But Johnson still has a ways to go. He still gets “happy feet” in the pocket, he has been inaccurate at times, and his interception last week was a poor decision compounded by a poor throw. Northwestern is not going to be able to run the ball effectively against that fierce Spartans front seven, so Johnson is going to have to make some plays in the passing game.

► Question: Drake Anderson gave the running game a spark. Can that continue vs MSU?

► Vaccher: Anderson had a heck of a coming out party against UNLV, running for 141 yards and a touchdown. Northwestern really needed it, too, as Isaiah Bowser missed last week’s game with an injury, and Jesse Brown, who started the UNLV game in his absence, left in the first half with an injury and didn’t return. Bowser, a power runner who likes to square his shoulders and truck people, is back this week, but I expect Anderson to continue to have a role. As a speedy, quick-cutting back, he can be the lightning to Bowser’s thunder and can offer NU a good change-of-pace in the backfield. Anderson might remind viewers of his father, former NU running back Damien Anderson. (You feel old now, don’t you?)

Drake Anderson

► Question: Does Northwestern’s defense feel like it gets overlooked in the Big Ten?

► Vaccher: The Wildcats get overlooked, period, don’t they? They are the defending Big Ten West champions and have won 15 of their last 16 regular-season Big Ten games, yet they still fly under-the-radar. So they’re used to it. In fact, I think they prefer it that way: Northwestern does better as an underdog than as a favorite.

The Wildcats’ defense is a very effective, bend-but-don’t-break kind of unit. They will allow yardage between the 30s, but they stiffen in the red zone. They have a rugged front seven, and, like Michigan State, their first priority is to stop the running game. Then, they play a Cover-4 shell in the back half, keep everything in front of them and make tackles. They’ll generally give you the underneath stuff; if you’re going to score against them, their goal is to make you snap the ball 10 or more times to do it. They are very fundamentally sound and don’t make a lot of mistakes.

More: Curtis Blackwell: Mark Dantonio was warned about Auston Robertson as MSU recruit

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Northwestern

► Question: Who are some names to watch on both sides of the ball?

► Vaccher: Johnson and Bowser will be the keys for Northwestern’s offense, as usual, but there are also some receivers to keep an eye on. Bennett Skowronek is a big, physical possession receiver who will get plenty of balls thrown his way. The Wildcats also have a few smaller, speedy receivers who could make life difficult for MSU’s defensive backs. Northwestern will use Kyric McGowan, Riley Lees and Jefferson on rub and crossing routes over the middle – the same types of routes that the graduated Flynn Nagel, in particular, made a living on against the Spartans, catching 18 passes over the last two years.

Defensively, the stars are defensive end Joe Gaziano and middle linebacker Paddy Fisher. Gaziano is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after stuffing the stat sheet with nine tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against UNLV. Fisher is a tackling machine who made 227 tackles, the most in the Big Ten, in 2017 and 2018. In the secondary, the guy to watch out for is J.R. Pace, who may be the best all-around athlete on the team. He led the team with four interceptions last season, and he can also come up and lay the lumber in run support.

► Question: Why has Northwestern had MSU’s number and can the Wildcats make it four in a row?

► Vaccher: I don’t think Northwestern has any magic formula for beating the Spartans. Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t think it’s anything in particular, either; the Wildcats just match up well against Michigan State. For one, they are similar teams, with strong defenses and offenses that can struggle mightily at times. As I mentioned previously, Northwestern’s defense forces an offense to execute on long drives, and the Spartans have had problems doing that; they might commit a penalty or surrender a negative play that puts them behind the chains and might make them get greedy. That plays right into Northwestern’s hands – this defense forced 26 turnovers last season, second-most in the Big Ten.

Offensively, Northwestern’s offense is far from explosive, but they will take what a defense gives them and dink-and-dunk their way down the field. If Johnson can hit on a big play or two to open up that defense – especially early in the game – the offense might be able to score enough to get the win. It may be a low-scoring, ugly game, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I say the Cats pull the upset, somewhere in the neighborhood of 17-13.

Paddy Fisher

Players to watch

► Joe Gaziano, DE: The senior is a true difference-maker for the Wildcats and ranks third in program history with 22.5 career sacks, which is second among active players in the nation. In last week’s victory over UNLV, Gaziano had a career-high nine tackles while adding 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. After earning second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, Gaziano could have a field day against the MSU offensive line.

► Paddy Fisher, LB: A first-team All-Big Ten honoree from last year as well as making third-team All-American from the Associated Press, Fisher led the Wildcats with 116 tackles and shows no signs of falling short of that number two games into his junior season. In the win over UNLV, Fisher had seven tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and three pass breakups. His 11 career forced fumbles are a program record.

► Drake Anderson, RB: The redshirt freshman made the most of his opportunity last week against UNLV, taking over for the injured Jesse Brown and running for 141 yards on 26 carries while also scoring a touchdown. The son of former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson, Drake Anderson’s 141 yards were the eighth-most in program history from a freshman.

Facts and figures

► On a roll: Northwestern has beaten Michigan State three straight times in the series and has victories in four of the last five. It’s part of a recent trend that shows the Wildcats dominating Big Ten opponents. The Wildcats enter the game having own eight in a row against conference foes and they are 15-1 in the last 16 Big Ten games.

► Strength vs. strength: Michigan State enters the game averaging 23.3 yards a game, second in the nation only to Wisconsin. However, Northwestern is coming off a season-high 276 rushing yards last week in the victory over UNLV and it is now averaging 184.5 yards per game on the ground. In addition to Drake Anderson’s 141 yards last week, Jesse Brown ran for 79 and QB Hunter Johnson gained 55.

► Coming of age: Sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson struggled in Northwestern’s season-opening loss at Stanford, but in the win over UNLV, he became the first Wildcats QB since Dan Persa in 2010 to score a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown in his first home start. Johnson opened the scoring with a 1-yard run then connected with JJ Jefferson on a 50-yard TD pass in the third quarter.