Big Ten play opens up for Michigan State and Northwestern this week in Evanston. Both teams have already taken a hit in the loss column this season and are looking to get a win in conference play right off the bat. Michigan State will hope its offense shows up after a rough performance against Arizona State last week. Northwestern's offense could use some help too, and they won't get much assistance from the Spartan defense. In other words, get ready for some gritty defensive football this weekend, because the offensive fireworks may not be in large supply here.
Michigan State has historically dominated the all-time series against Northwestern, but the Wildcats have been holding the upper hand recently. Northwestern owns a three-game winning streak (the longest streak by Northwestern in the series) against the Spartans, and the Wildcats have won four of the last five meetings going back to 2012.
Can Northwestern pull out another win against a Michigan State when the Spartans are looking to rebound after their first loss of the season? If so, Northwestern would score a big win in conference play and in a division that could be as wide open as it's been in some time, that would be key for Pat Fitzgerald and his team as they look to return to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Michigan State at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -9.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Where is the Michigan State offense? That's a great question. Last week against Arizona State, the offense was dreadful enough to cause the fans to serenade the team with a chorus of boos as they came off the field. Brian Lewerke looks like a quarterback still trying to get in a rhythm and find his consistency, something you never want to see from a player with his experience. Moving the ball hasn't exactly been the problem for the Spartans offense, but finishing drives have been. These warts showed up the most last week against the Sun Devils.
The Spartans tend to have a solid running back almost any year and Elijah Collins appears to be keeping that trend alive this season. Collins has rushed for a team-high 281 yards and is one of three Spartans players to score on the ground with his touchdown last week. It's worth noting Collins rushed for 192 yards two weeks ago for the bulk of his yards early on this season.
If Michigan State attacks on the ground, that should create an advantage. The Wildcats have allowed 4.56 yards per rushing attempt and 175.33 rushing yards per game, with both numbers being good for third-worst in the Big Ten. Northwestern linebackers Paddy Fisher and Chris Bergin will be active in combating the Spartans' running game.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
An injury to Northwestern quarterback TJ Green in Week 1 has put the keys to the Northwestern offense in the hands of Hunter Johnson. Now if Johnson and Northwestern can just get out of neutral. Northwestern is the only team in the Big Ten averaging fewer than five yards per play early on, although playing one of two games against Stanford can drag an early average down easily. And two of Johnson's three interceptions came against the Cardinal. The Clemson transfer was picked off once by UNLV and he struggled with pass accuracy, completing 12-of-25 attempts for 165 yards. Bennett Skowronek has been the leading receiver with nine receptions for 110 yards.
Johnson taking off running with the football could help expand the Northwestern offense, but he is still getting in the swing of things. In the meantime, look for freshman Drake Anderson to continue leading the ground attack. Anderson has burst on the scene with 146 rushing yards and a touchdown, helping to fill the void for Isaiah Bowser, who did not play against UNLV after getting banged up against Stanford.
There is something unsettling about seeing Michigan State as such a heavy road favorite considering how the offense played last week. But perhaps that is more a reflection on two things; how good the Michigan State defense is and how little is expected of Northwestern's offense. It's not like Northwestern to get steamrolled in spots like this, especially by teams with their own offensive struggles. Playing at home could help too. But in the end, Michigan State should find a way to a victory and they will bounce back from last week's controversial loss against Arizona State. Just don't expect anything pretty, because that's not going to happen with these two teams.
Prediction: Michigan State 20, Northwestern 13
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.