Michigan State vs. Northwestern: View from other side

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Northwestern Clayton QB Thorson has thrown nine interceptions this season, matching the total he threw in 2016 and 2015.


Teddy Greenstein, who covers Northwestern for the Chicago Tribune, breaks down the Wildcats for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Northwestern-Michigan State game. You can follow him on Twitter @TeddyGreenstein.

Question. Michigan State has been effective stopping the run this season. What is the key to Justin Jackson being a difference-maker in this game?

Answer. It’s almost all about the O-line. The group had a brutal time early in the Big Ten slate. Then again, the opponents were Wisconsin and Penn State. Jackson ran for a total of 91 yards in those games. Since then, he gashed Maryland for 171 and Iowa for 93. Also, Jackson had some leg injuries early in the season. Now he’s fresh. You can tell.

Q. What has been the key to Northwestern’s effective run defense over the last five games when it has held four of those opponents to less than 100 yards?

More: ​Detroit News predictions: MSU vs. Northwestern

A. Something flipped in Week 5 against Penn State. Going up against a solid Nittany Lions line, Northwestern registered 12 tackles-for-loss. The Wildcats have kept up the heat in the two games since, getting major help from a true freshman named Samdup Miller.

Q. Quarterback Clayton Thorson has thrown nine interceptions this season. Can he avoid turning the ball over against an MSU defense that ranks second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense?

A. Thorson had 36 pick-free attempts against Iowa, his best performance in that regard. He’s taking fewer deep shots and relying more on dump-offs to Jackson, who caught five passes last week and dropped two more. NU’s receivers have also improved during the season. Last year it was Austin Carr-or-bust and early this season it was bust. Now the Cats are getting more from the likes of deep threat Macan Wilson and slot receiver Flynn Nagel.

Q. After losing three of four, the Wildcats have bounced back by winning the last two. What’s the key to continuing that momentum?

A: The defense seems solid, no matter what. It’s all on the O, really. Thorson & Co could not function against Wisconsin, getting sacked eight times for a variety of reasons. The Penn State game was equally pitiful, and then NU got shut out in the first half against Iowa. The O-line seems to be improving each week, and a lively Jackson will force opponents to respect the run.

Q. Michigan State fans have always showed up well at Ryan Field. How does the amount of green in the stands affect the Wildcats?

A. Zero. The Wildcats are accustomed to it. They often play better on the road. They turned their season around last year, you’ll recall by winning in Iowa City and East Lansing in back-to-back weeks.



Clayton Thorson, QB: The junior quarterback is fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (241.1) but has thrown nine interceptions this season. However, last week’s victory over Iowa was the 21st win in Thorson’s career as he scored his 14th career rushing touchdown, tying him for fourth in program history. He leads the Big Ten in completions per game at 22.57 and he is now fourth in career total offense with 6,887 yards.

Justin Jackson, RB: The senior is already Northwestern’s career leader in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and rushing attempts and is closing in on two touchdown marks. He has 37 total touchdowns and 36 rushing touchdowns, just shy of the 38 rushing and total touchdowns of Damien Anderson. Jackson ran for 171 yards in the win over Maryland and he now has 23 career 100-yard games. The Wildcats are 3-0 this season when he has gained 100 or more yards.

More: ​MSU offense seeks to escape paucity-of-points phase

■ Nate Hall, LB: The junior had a team-high nine tackles in the win last week against Iowa and now has 29 tackles in the last three games with 6.5 for loss. He is fourth in the Big Ten with 1.21 tackles for loss a game and has eight solo tackles for loss, which is second in the conference. He also has a sack and four pass breakups this season and has at least five tackles in all seven games this season.


Good start: A win at Northwestern would make Michigan State 5-0 in Big Ten play for just the fourth time in program history. The last time the Spartans won the first five in conference play was 2013 when coach Mark Dantonio led the team to an 8-0 mark in conference, a win in the Big Ten title game and a win in the Rose Bowl. The other two times MSU started 5-0 was when it won Big Ten titles in 1965 (7-0) and 1966 (7-0).

Tackling machine: Sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie had a career-high 13 tackles last week against Indiana and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season. Bachie leads the Spartans with 63 tackles and two forced fumbles and is second on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5. He is tied for second in the conference in tackles, averaging nine a game.

■ Homecoming: Michigan State has a large alumni base in the Chicago area and 12 current players are from Illinois, including starters Brian Allen, Demetrius Cooper, Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams. The Spartans haven’t lost at Northwestern since 2001 and in the last trip to Ryan Field in 2013, Michigan State clinched the Big Ten Legends Division championship.