Another week, another chance for Michigan State to right itself.
The Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have a three-game losing streak following a 31-14 loss to Brigham Young last Saturday. They led 7-3 at halftime and trailed by just three points, 10-7, entering the fourth quarter, but once again were worn down and ran away from in the final 15 minutes of regulation.
It’s back to the Big Ten this week (and for the rest of the regular season) as Northwestern (2-3, 1-1) visits Spartan Stadium for the first time since 2012. Michigan State was struggling that season, too, and the Wildcats added to those struggles with a 23-20 victory.
Kickoff is scheduled for at 3:30 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network. The early forecast calls for temperatures in the high 50s with plenty of sunshine.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Will it be Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry at quarterback?
Or maybe it will be Brian Lewerke? The one safe bet is that, barring a Cleveland Browns-esque rash of quarterback injuries, it won’t be freshman Messiah deWeaver. He is going to be redshirted. The other three, however, will all have an opportunity this week in practice to prove they should get the start and the snaps. It’s likely no one will know who that will be, or if it will be some sort of rotation, until kickoff.
Terry replaced O’Connor in the fourth quarter against BYU, throwing one interception after a promising beginning to his first drive, and then leading the team to one touchdown drive in three possessions. Head coach Mark Dantonio has repeatedly said that O’Connor isn’t playing that poorly, but the bottom line is who can be the most productive at the position plays.
2. Can the offensive line protect whoever is taking the snaps?
Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Ogdenigbo had four sacks in the Wildcats’ last game, a 38-31 win at Iowa on Oct. 1. Ogdenigbo, who has 18.5 sacks in his career, was a high school teammate of Michigan State offensive lineman Benny McGowan at Centerville (Ohio), so maybe McGowan has a couple of insights to help slow down Ogdenigbo.
The offensive line has to do its part to give the quarterback time to find open receivers. After keeping O’Connor clean in regulation at Indiana, the line was beaten for two sacks in overtime. BYU had all three of its sacks in the second half last week as it pulled away for the win.
3. Third downs
The Michigan State offense isn’t converting enough third downs to sustain drives, and the defense isn’t getting off the field when it has a chance to force a punt. It’s been a bad combination for the Spartans.
The offense has been successful on just 27 of 70 third-down attempts, a 38.6 percent rating that ranks 73rd in the country. The defense is allowing 45.2 percent (33 of 73), which is 105th out of 128 NCAA Division I FBS teams. Northwestern is converting 36.1 percent of its chances on offenses, while allowing a similar number on defense.
4. How many yards does Northwestern running back Justin Jackson run for?
Michigan State has allowed 100-yard rushers each of the last two games: 100 yards exactly to Indiana’s Devine Redding and 165 yards last week against BYU’s Jamaal Williams. Northwestern junior Justin Jackson is No. 2 in the Big Ten with 510 yards rushing, including 171 yards at Iowa. The Spartans can’t let that be the case on Saturday if they want a win.
Much of the damage has been happening after the third quarter. Redding had 55 yards on five carries in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Hoosiers’ 24-21 victory. Williams scored two touchdowns and rushed for 96 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter. He left a lot of would-be tacklers grasping at or falling off of him.
5. Can Michigan State just get a win?
There will be plenty of talk about the Xs and Os of the game plan and who is playing, but at the end of the day, can Michigan State find a way to win a game? The Spartans have to start feeling good about themselves again, as they did after beating Notre Dame. The way the Irish’s season has gone that might not seem like a big accomplishment, but a win is a win is a win no matter how it happens.
Right now, that’s all Michigan State wants.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo