Northwestern and Michigan State entered Saturday’s game with questions about their quarterbacks. One left feeling good and the other left wondering.
The Michigan State Spartans saw quickly what they might have in freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke.
Mark Dantonio named the freshman his starting quarterback after a week of hand-wringing to snap a three-game losing streak. The Spartans needed something to spark an anemic group that simply was no longer performing at a high level.
Lewerke got his confidence early, hitting a big play on third down for his first completion and driving past midfield. On the Spartans’ second drive, he faked the Northwestern defense and lofted a pass over the top to Josiah Price and an early lead.
The Spartans went up 14-0 and their confidence was rolling. Lewerke was scrambling to pick up yards. For a moment, the Spartans had seemingly found their quarterback answer. A freshman who could anchor the team for years to come.
Michigan State had seemingly righted the ship.
That goes double considering the Spartans’ opponent. Northwestern came into the game with one of the worst offenses statistically in the conference. A team that scored only seven points — in the fourth quarter — against FCS Illinois State earlier in the season.
Their quarterback, Clayton Thorson, continued to be tantalizing enough to keep playing but questionable enough to begin wondering what his future at the position was. Especially if the team continued to look anemic and struggle on the offensive end as it has.
That turned out not to be the case as Northwestern scored a stunning 54-40 win over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Saturday. Michigan State’s quarterback was the one to struggle, not the one everyone expected with Northwestern’s difficulties on offense the past two seasons.
If any quarterback was likely to struggle, even against a puzzling defense like the Spartans, it would be Thorson.
Thorson though was steady. Down 14-0, he led the Wildcats on an eight-play, 61-yard drive capped off with a Justin Jackson touchdown run, leaving Spartans defenders in his wake. Jackson’s running game relieved pressure and Thorson began slinging the ball more.
The Wildcats used their bye week well and installed more bubble screens to spread the ball to the perimeter and get athletes like Solomon Vault and Flynn Nagel in space. It certainly helped an offensive line that has sometimes struggled to protect their quarterback.
Thorson, the sophomore, has begun to string together solid games. He put in another one with 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 27-for-35 passing. The Spartans stacked the box and brought the blitz, and Thorson was able to stand up to it and find his safety valve — Austin Carr (11 catches for 130 yards).
The introduction of bubble screens helped his accuracy even more. And Michigan State’s frustratingly tame defensive line gave Thorson plenty of time to throw.
Northwestern did not look like the worst offense in the conference. Or the non-functioning offense of earlier in the year.
The Wildcats kept the Spartans off balance all game. They freed up running lanes for Justin Jackson. And Thorson delivered strikes time and time again.
Lewerke’s afternoon changed suddenly and his downfall was quick too.
Joe Graziano landed on top of Lewerke in the end zone for a game-changing safety. By the time the third quarter came around, Lewerke had completed 12 of 19 passes for just 99 yards. The Spartans trailed 33-17 (the other score coming on a pick-six) and looked lifeless.
Dantonio pulled the freshman quarterback, seemingly going back on anointing his starting quarterback for the future. He returned to senior captain Tyler O’Conner.
O’Conner was able to throw some deep passes, starting off the high-scoring fireworks with touchdown throws of 59 and 86 yards in the third quarter to get Michigan State within two points (quickly dispelled with a kickoff return from Solomon Vault).
But O’Conner was clearly not the answer for Michigan State’s passing and offensive woes. O’Conner finished with 281 yards on 13-for-21 passing. But overthrew receivers on a few deep passes, could not escape constant pressure or sustain any long drives to get the Spartans back in the game.
Michigan State’s complete lack of a run game continues to hurt the quarterbacks and the offense in general. But the Spartans have capable wide receivers. There still should be some potency.
Michigan State’s entire identity as a program has been called into question during this losing streak. The offense is certainly not spared.
And neither is their quarterback.
As one struggling offense in Northwestern seemed to grow in confidence and build momentum toward the second half of the season, Michigan State seems only to have more questions about what is best and how to right the ship before the end of the season.
Michigan State Spartans vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Preview, Predictions and Prognostication
The Northwestern Wildcats and Michigan State Spartans are trying to find their way atop the middle of the Big Ten pile. These two defensive-minded teams are sure to keep the scores low and look for a break.
Where: Evanston, Ill..; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Michigan State leads 37-18
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 54-40 (Oct. 15, 2016)
Line: Michigan State (-1)
The Northwestern Wildcats have seemingly found their balance after a rough start to the season.Their identity has taken hold and it is something that continues to be a trend from the last few years.
Pat Fitzgerald has built a program that relies heavily on a strong, disciplined defense that bends but rarely breaks. They are opportunistic and take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes.
If anything, the offense is what holds them back. Despite all the brilliance of Justin Jackson, Northwestern still never knows what quarterback it will get. And the offensive line will remain inconsistent.
The Wildcats defense is not 2015 dominant, but it has been good enough to give them a chance at Wisconsin and to defeat Iowa in overtime. The Wildcats are rarely going to be out of a game with this.
Yet, it also means every game seems like it is always going to be in the balance. And as Northwestern still tries to prove it is in the notch below the Big Ten West contender, these games will help them determine which bowl game they go to and just what their floor is as a program.
Maybe that is not what Northwestern fans want to hear. It feels like the debate among fans remains whether the team can get over the hump and out of the middle-tier bowl. But that is where this team is destined to go. Maybe it is not the worst thing in the world for this program to hit that level consistently — especially when missing bowl games entirely is still a fresh memory.
There are a lot of teams in that tier. And a lot of teams still trying to find their way.
The Michigan State Spartans seem to be the team at the top of that pile at the moment. The Spartans’ big win over the Wolverines was a feather in their cap. But this is a team that like all the others has its struggles.
Last week against Indiana, Michigan State’s defense was stout as usual. But the offense could barely get anything going. The Wildcats and Spartans are very much mirror images of each other. They have clear weaknesses, but cover it up with their strengths well.
In this game, it will come down to which team can eventually exploit those for the win.
1 Burning Question: Can Brian Lewerke take advantage of NU’s secondary?
These are two very good defenses that have established themselves first and foremost along their defensive lines. The Spartans and Wildcats have done a good job controlling the run and establishing the lines on both ends. It is hard to get yards against these teams.
But Northwestern has a weakness in the secondary.
The Wildcats give up 245.9 yards per game. They do not give up a ton of big plays — save for the occasional play action pass — but they will allow things to work underneath. If a quarterback is patient, he can attack the defense and pick up chunks of yards.
That will be the task for Brian Lewerke of Michigan State. The sophomore quarterback is throwing for 194.6 yards per game. He has stayed pretty efficient and avoided mistakes. But Michigan State is obviously relying more heavily on star running back L.J. Scott.
At some point, Michigan State will need to throw the ball to beat this Northwestern defense. Or, the Spartans will have to hope their defense can shut down the Wildcats’ offense to break the dam and wear out the defense. If Lewerke comes out firing, it could be a long day for Northwestern’s defense. It is a clear weakness among a group of teams with a clear defensive strength.
2 Key Stats
-0.71: Northwestern’s defense has always been opportunistic with its turnovers. It is how the team’s bend-don’t-break defense becomes otherworldly. But surprisingly this season, Northwestern has done well without turnovers. Clayton Thorson’s interceptions affect this number, but the Wildcats have a -0.71 turnover margin this year. This defense is not forcing turnovers effectively with just five interceptions this year. The defense has forced a few fumbles. But often Northwestern is struggling to find the big momentum-changing play.
18: Michigan State has always been known for its devastating defensive line. This year’s Northwestern team has been known for its porous offensive line. Especially in the pass game. Clayton Thorson will need to have his head on a swivel and a quick count in the pocket. Michigan State has 18 sacks this year. Mark Dantonio’s team is certainly going to have its ears pinned back to get after the quarterback. And they will get there. Northwestern has given up 23 sacks this year.
3 Key Players
Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB: The best way to neutralize Michigan State’s defensive line? Run the football. And the Wildcats will do plenty of that. After a slow start thanks to injury, Justin Jackson has started to come around with some stellar games. He is up to 603 yards for the season and averaging nearly 86 yards per game. In Big Ten play, Jackson is averaging 88.8 yards per game but has games of 171 and 93 the last two games. Jackson is starting to find his stride. A good game from him opens everything up for Northwestern.
L.J. Scott, Michigan State RB: Similar to Jackson, L.J. Scott is seemingly a better player than his stats might suggest. He is rushing for just 82.5 yards per game and 495 total rushing yards. It would seem like he should be a featured player in the Spartans offense. Yet the production is simply not there from him. At some point, Michigan State is going to find its footing offensively. If the Spartans defense does its job to stymie Northwestern’s offense, Scott is going to benefit the most from a tired defensive line. Michigan State, despite Northwestern’s poor pass defense, should have a steady diet of Scott ready for them.
Joe Bachie, Michigan State LB: This game is going to get determined along the lines for both teams. And Northwestern’s offensive line could always get overwhelmed. That is the reality for them. Keeping an eye out for linebacker Joe Bachie will be key. He has been all over the field, leading Michigan State in tackles with 63, totaling 6.5 tackles for a loss, 3.0 sacks and two forced fumbles. This is a young defense that is playing well above its head. Michigan State will have to get a lot from him to dominate the line.