When you take a look at the recent success that the Northwestern Wildcats (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) have had against the Michigan State Spartans (3-1, 1-0), you'd think the Cats would be looking forward to this one. But with the way that NU has been playing as of late, this game is much more of a concern. The third and fourth quarters have been an issue for Northwestern all season long. The Wildcats needed a couple of last-minute stops to hold off a late rally by Purdue; they were shut out in the second half against both Duke and Michigan; and late turnovers that went for touchdowns essentially gave Akron its first win against the Big Ten since 1894.
MSU, on the other hand, has enjoyed success of late. The Spartans have won their last two games after losing at Arizona State nearly four weeks ago. They’ve gone over the 30-point mark in all three of their victories; they’ve shown balance on offense; and their defense has held opponents to 20 points or fewer in their last three games. This is not the same Spartans team that Northwestern has had its way with over the previous two seasons.
With the Wildcats struggling on both sides of the ball — they're still feeling the effects of running back Jeremy Larkin’s retirement for medical reasons — and with the Spartans' momentum over these last couple of weeks, Northwestern will be hard pressed to find a way to win this game.
Northwestern at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Northwestern’s second-half struggles
The Wildcats have been outscored 59-13 during the third and fourth quarters this season. Their offense just can’t seem to move the ball in the latter stages of the game, leaving their defense weary from being on the field for too long. The final 30 minutes against both Akron and Michigan were very telling. Against the Zips, NU kept making mistake after mistake, and Akron capitalized on every one of them. Against the Wolverines, the Cats were outcoached, outclassed, and outworked in every phase of the game in the second half.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has scored 56 second-half points and has outscored its foes 38-13 in the third quarter. The Wildcats need to get out of this second-half fog if they hope to win their third straight against MSU.
2. The loss of Jeremy Larkin is visible
Leading up to last week’s game against Michigan, Northwestern’s sophomore running back announced that he had to retire from the game after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis. He underwent a battery of tests during the team’s bye week after complaining of tingling and numbness in his extremities. The Wildcats felt that they had enough talent to move on without him, but so far that has yet to manifest itself. John Moten IV, Solomon Vault, Riley Lees, Isaiah Bowser, and Clayton Thorson combined for just 28 yards on 34 total carries against Michigan, although Moten and Thorson did score two rushing touchdowns in the first half.
Unfortunately, those were the only times that Northwestern would find the end zone against Michigan. The Wildcats need to be more consistent on the ground if they hope to turn this season around.
3. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke
The junior from Arizona is thriving in the pro-style system of head coach Mark Dantonio. He’s completed 80 of his 122 pass attempts this season (65.6 completion percentage) for 999 yards, five touchdowns, and a rating of 139.7. What gives Northwestern hope, however, is that Lewerke has been sacked nine times, and he’s thrown five interceptions. The Wildcats have slightly improved their pass rush over their last two games (one sack, six quarterback hurries), and putting constant pressure on Lewerke will give them a chance.
The Wildcats may have won the last two meetings with the Spartans, but they had more talent on both sides of the ball during those games. Austin Carr, Anthony Walker, Godwin Igwebuike and Justin Jackson are just some of the players Northwestern had at its disposal back then. That talent drain has been difficult to overcome, as evidenced by the Wildcats' second-half lapses, the five turnovers they’ve committed this year and the inconsistency on both sides of the ball. Add in the fact that this game will be in East Lansing, and it's a tough task for Northwestern.
The Spartans are firing on all cylinders; they’re unbeaten at home so far (2-0); their defense is damn near unstoppable (12 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 28 tackles for a loss, 7 interceptions); and they’re healthy for the most part. All signs point to the Wildcats losing their fourth consecutive game.
Prediction: Michigan State 30, Northwestern 16
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.