Detroit News scouting report: Northwestern at Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

No. 11 Northwestern at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Northwestern 5-0, Michigan State 1-3

Line: Northwestern by 13.5

Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down the Spartans’ game against the Wildcats:

Elijah Collins

Key matchup

MSU RUN GAME VS. NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE

This is a tough matchup for any team in the Big Ten, but it gets especially difficult for a team averaging just more than 73 rushing yards a game like the Spartans. Michigan State has managed to gain more than 60 yards on the ground in just one game this season — its lone victory, at Michigan. Outside of that, it’s been painful to watch the Spartans try to find some room on the ground, as their longest run of the season came from the backup quarterback. That was a 38-yarder from Payton Thorne in the loss to Indiana.

More: Spartans know they'll have to 'make plays' against stout Northwestern defense

It’s hard to pin too much of the rushing woes on the backs, though that rotation has had some scratching their heads. Sophomore Elijah Collins has been virtually a non-factor as freshman Jordon Simmons and junior Connor Heyward have gotten most of the work. Finding any momentum, regardless of who’s carrying the ball, against Northwestern will be difficult. The Wildcats allow 100.6 yards rushing a game and are fifth in the nation in turnover margin at +1.6 a game. If the Spartans have any chance at the upset, they’ll need to be able to run the ball. They don’t have to go for 200 yards, but they’ll certainly have to break the norm.

Wildcats to watch

Peyton Ramsey, QB: The graduate transfer from Indiana has done exactly what the Wildcats hoped for when he arrived on campus. He’s hardly been spectacular, but when you have a defense as good as Northwestern’s, you don’t need to be a superstar at quarterback. Ramsey has thrown eight touchdown passes against four interceptions while completing 96 of 155 passes for 926 yards. His ability to make plays with his feet has helped, as well, as he’s run for 128 yards and a touchdown this season.

Blake Gallagher, LB: The senior was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after the Wildcats’ victory over Wisconsin. He matched a career high with 14 tackles against the Badgers while also picking up a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Gallagher is third in the Big Ten with 48 tackles and ranks 40th in the nation with 9.6 tackles a game.

Brandon Joseph

Brandon Joseph, S: The redshirt freshman has five interceptions through the first five games, which ties him for the most in the nation. Joseph had two interceptions against Iowa, and followed that the next week with an interception in the win over Nebraska. Joseph added two more picks last week in the win over Wisconsin and has earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice.

Facts and figures

►The Wildcats are off to their first 5-0 start since 2015 and their first 5-0 start in Big Ten play since 1996. It’s the seventh time in program history Northwestern has started 5-0 in the Big Ten. Last week’s victory over Wisconsin was the first over a top-10 opponent since defeating No. 9 Nebraska, 28-25, on Nov. 5, 2011. It resulted in the ’Cats being ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff poll, their highest ever.

►Northwestern has won three of the last four meetings against Michigan State, including three in a row at Spartan Stadium, the longest win streak at Michigan State in program history. Since 2016, the Wildcats are averaging 33 points per game against the Spartans.

►The Wildcats have 15 takeaways (11 interceptions, four fumble recoveries) this season, the most through five games under coach Pat Fitzgerald, who took over in 2006. The previous high was 14 through five games in 2013. The Wildcats defense has forced multiple turnovers in five of the last six games and has forced a turnover in nine straight games, both dating back to last season. 

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau