Ten years ago, Michigan State broke a four-game losing streak by rallying from a 38-3 deficit in the third quarter at Northwestern for a 41-38 win. It was the largest comeback in NCAA Division I history. When the Spartans host Northwestern on Saturday, it will only feel as if they are trying to climb out of a hole that big.
Michigan State (2-3) has gone from Big Ten title contender to being one of college football’s biggest mysteries in the span of three weeks with consecutive losses to Wisconsin, Indiana and Brigham Young. The Spartans have been outscored 85-41 in this stretch, including 61-20 in two games at home. Now they have a renewed quarterback competition to figure out as head coach Mark Dantonio must decide if he wants to stick with fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor or turn to either fourth-year junior Damion Terry or redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
The last time Michigan State lost four games in a row was in 2006. The comeback at Northwestern snapped that streak. Can this current streak be ended against this version of the Wildcats? Here’s a closer look at the matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
Dantonio has said he won’t announce a starting quarterback until game day. It won’t be surprising if that announcement doesn’t actually happen, but rather we all find out when either No. 7 (O’Connor), No. 6 (Terry) or No. 14 (Lewerke) lines up behind center. Even then, there could still be some sort of rotation, with two or possibly all three playing at some point in the game.
Of much bigger concern for Michigan State is how to block Northwestern’s front seven. The Wildcats had six sacks in their 38-31 win at Iowa two weeks ago, four of them coming from defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. Linebacker Jaylen Prater leads the Wildcats with 46 tackles, while safety Godwin Igwebuike is second with 44 tackles. Igweibuike has four tackles for loss to go along with four pass breakups.
The Spartans’ offensive line has been inconsistent at best this season, which has led to much of the offense’s issues. Kodi Kieler had to leave the game against BYU last week late in the first half with an undisclosed injury and didn’t return. It’s unknown if he’ll play against Northwestern. If not, expect redshirt freshman Cole Chewins to get the start. Redshirt freshman Tyler Higby made his first start at left guard against BYU, so that’s a lot of inexperience on that side of the line.
The line can’t shoulder all of the blame for the inconsistent offense. There have been growing pains at wide receiver and the three-headed running back rotation of Gerald Holmes, LJ Scott and Madre London has never found a rhythm. As Dantonio has said, this has been an all-inclusive issue.
When Northwestern has the ball
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson is gradually finding his groove after opening the season with ineffective games in losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. Thorson was quite efficient in the win at Iowa, completing 18 of 30 passes for 163 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He has completed multiple passes to nine different receivers, but his main target is Austin Carr (32 catches, 465 yards, six touchdowns).
Northwestern also has a versatile running back in junior Justin Jackson, who is second in the Big Ten with 510 yards rushing. Jackson has also caught 10 passes for 80 yards and is a good blocker in protection.
Getting pressure on the quarterback has been Michigan State’s biggest defensive problem all season. Sacks aren’t everything when it comes to effective pressure, but the Spartans have just five this season and opposing quarterbacks are averaging 12.6 yards per completion against them. Without effective pressure, the secondary has been often times stuck in coverage too long. That has translated into a horrid rate of 45.2 percent of third-down conversions allowed.
Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger has made just 2 of 5 field-goal attempts this season. Ditto for his Northwestern counterpart Jack Mitchell, so this area is a push. Punter Jake Hartbarger has a 38.1-yard net average on his kicks, while Northwestern’s Hunter Niswander has a net average of 36.8 yards. Slight edge to the Spartans.
The return game for Michigan State has produced few big plays. It has yet to flip field position or provide a spark when needed. Maybe that changes this week, but the potential of redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart Jr. has not yet been put on display. Flynn Nagel is averaging nearly 12 yards on punt returns for Northwestern, with a long of 47 yards.
This stretch of games has been as trying as any in Dantonio’s career at Michigan State. As well as possible personnel changes at multiple positions, he and his staff will have to come up with some creativeness to get the team feeling good about itself, whether that is in playing calling or through motivational methods. Confidence hasn’t been found in great abundance the past month.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is in his 11th season, making him the second-longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten behind only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. His team opened the season 1-3, including home losses to Western Michigan and FCS-member Illinois State, but found its way past that and won on the road at Iowa. The Wildcats are coming off a bye week so they’ll be refreshed and looking to get another road conference win.
Advantage: Michigan State
Can Michigan State possibly start the Big Ten season 0-3? You have to go back to that 2006 team to find the last time that happened. The Spartans have played well in spurts, usually the first half of games. They’ve been outscored 100-56 after halftime this season, including 59-21 in the fourth quarter and overtime, which suggests poor halftime and in-game adjustments by the coaching staff. There are so many predictors pointing to another loss, but then this is a Northwestern team that, while it has won at Iowa, has also lost at home to a MAC school and a FCS school. This is not Ohio State or Michigan coming into Spartan Stadium on homecoming weekend.
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Michigan State 23, Northwestern 17
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Northwestern 30, Michigan State 28
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski