3 Keys to a Michigan State victory over Northwestern

The Michigan State Spartans are 6-1 on the season, 4-0 in BigTen play, and are bowl eligible after last year's debacle of a 3-9 season. Coach Mark Dantonio & Co. are far from finished though as we are only just over halfway through the season and plenty of games left to play, starting with at Northwestern this Saturday.

The Wildcats are 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in conference play, coming off a come-from-behind overtime 17-10 win over Iowa. The Spartans are coming off a come-from-behind 17-9 victory over a very game Indiana squad last Saturday. The last time MSU played at Northwestern was in 2013 when State beat the Wildcats 30-6 on their way to a Rose Bowl-winning season, one of the best in Spartan history.

Fun fact for you, Dantonio is 5-3 against Northwestern, and 4-0 on the road against them. So how does he get to 6-3 and 5-0, respectively? Here's your answer…



Michigan State boasts the best defense in the Big Ten allowing just over 260 yards per game, good for top-five in the country, holding five of their seven opponents to under 20 points and three of their last four to 10 points or fewer. While they are great at keeping teams out of the end zone, they've forced just 11 turnovers on the year, five of which came against Michigan.

With Northwestern's 74th-ranked offense not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, this same Wildcat team scored 54 points against MSU last year in a 54-40 victory in East Lansing. You can bet Dantonio remembers it and will have pounded last year's game into the minds of Joe Bachie, Andrew Dowell, Chris Frey and the rest of the Spartan defense.


The Spartan offense sputtered out the gate last week against Indiana, scoring just three points in the first half. In fact, it took them until just under six minutes left in regulation to score their first touchdown of the game. This is not a recipe for long-term success and State needs to get their 89th-ranked offense going early-and-often against a softer defense than they've recently faced.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke has done a good job avoiding turnovers (just three interceptions on the year), but his completion percentage on the road is just over 50% and his yards per game on the road is just over 100, but that was against Michigan's ridiculous defense (and a tsunami) and against Minnesota (in a mini tsunami), who's top-25 defense is significantly better than Northwestern's.

LJ Scott, Madre London, and Gerald Holmes have done a decent job moving the ball on the ground, but the young offensive line still has holes to fill (actually gaps to create) and with a tough second-half of the season upon them (Penn State next week and Ohio State coming up), now is the time to show they can make those improvements against a softer defense.


Everyone who roots for, coaches, or plays for the green and white knows that Penn State is looming, but the players cannot play that way this week. This team is too young and still too questioned to think they can overlook anyone, let alone a team on a two-game winning streak like Northwestern.

It's on Mark Dantonio, Dave Warner and the rest of the Michigan State coaches to keep this team focused on the task-at-hand, to fine-tune the offense and take some pressure off the defense. We've seen the defense bend but not break, but at some point, a crack could lead to a flood. The offense needs to be the one to take that pressure off and prove they can score more than their 22 points per game they are currently averaging. Northwestern is playing with a lot of confidence and they have an offense that can move the ball both in the air (QB Clayton Thorson throws for over 250 yards per game) and on the ground (RB Justin Jackson 140 rushing yards over his last two games).

This will be a tough test for the Spartans, and they will need a complete team effort (offense, defense, and special teams) to win this game. Expect to see the offense air it out a little more early in the ballgame to give some breathing room for the running game and take some pressure off the defense.


  • Date: Saturday, October 28
  • Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Broadcast: ESPN
  • Line: MSU -1.5
  • O/U: 40