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Know Thy Enemy: Sparty visits 'Chicago's Big Ten team,' Northwestern

October 26, 2017
Senior wide receiver R.J Shelton (12) catches the ball and is then tackled by Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 15, 2016 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans were defeated by the Wildcats, 54-40.
Senior wide receiver R.J Shelton (12) catches the ball and is then tackled by Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 15, 2016 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans were defeated by the Wildcats, 54-40. —

Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes, from the eyes of the Spartans to the eyes of MSU football’s next foe. The State News asks the opposing team's student newspaper a few questions and see football through a different lens.

Northwestern entered the season with hopes and aspirations of making some noise in the Big Ten West division. And with quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson for another year, the Wildcats had tools on the offense to play with.

However, after a blowout loss to Duke 41-17, those murmurs turned to whimpers.

Quietly, though, the Wildcats have bounced back in ways to the tune of a 4-3 record. Most notably, they downed the Iowa Hawkeyes last game in a 17-10 affair that went into overtime.

To better understand life as a Wildcat in Evanston, Illinois, The State News interviewed Jonah Dylan, the sports editor of The Daily Northwestern, and asked him four questions on Northwestern football.

Q: Northwestern absolutely beat up MSU last year when the Wildcats visited East Lansing, hanging 54 points on the Spartans. The effort was largely due to the efforts of Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, how have the duo looked thus far this season?

A: I think it’s been a lot of inconsistency. Going into the year, everyone was expecting those two guys would be leading the way. I think for a lot of games the offense has lagged behind the defense. Against Penn State, obviously Penn State has a high-powered offense and they were expected to win the game, that was the issue offensively, they couldn’t move the ball. That was an issue. The loss to Duke, which was obviously the worst game of the season for the team, offensively there was just nothing to happening. I think it falls on Thorson, I think it falls on the offensive line. Jackson has struggled a lot because of the offensive line. He’s had a couple games he hasn’t even come close to 100 yards. I think, statistically, he’s got one of his worst seasons, despite the fact that he broke the (Northwestern all-time rushing yards) record. ... So I think, overall, the expectations were very high for those two and they haven’t really met them. 

Q: Northwestern, before the season began, was one of those teams that was expected to make some noise in the Big Ten. However, the early loss to Duke turned off some of that chatter. Since then, though, the Wildcats have bounced back in ways, namely the overtime win against Iowa last week. Overall, how has this team grown over the course of the season, especially defensively?

 A: There were a lot of injuries, especially in the secondary early on. So a lot of young players have had to step up. And then, of course, losing Paddy Fisher and Godwin Igwebuike at the beginning of the Maryland game forced a lot of people to step up. So I think there’s a lot of depth and the defense has really come together. The defensive line was an issue at the beginning of the year, but they’ve sort of started to hit their stride. ... Last week against Iowa the defense played great. Iowa doesn’t have the best offense, obviously, but to contain them and hold them to 10 points was very impressive. Especially on another day when the offense struggled.

Q: For both the offense and the defense, who is one player that will be an X-factor to this game against MSU? Where how they play will largely determine Northwestern’s fate?

A: Offensively, I’d throw out Bennett Skowronek. He’s a receiver, again it’s the same situation where you’re trying to replace Austin Carr, who last year was the Big Ten receiver of the year, huge season. So to replace that it’s going to take a couple guys. Stroknick is a guy who I think could step into that No. 1 receiver role, that’s what a lot of people thought at the beginning of the season. He’s been kind of up and down. But any given game, he can go off. If him and the other receivers are able to pick up that slack that has maybe gone from Carr leaving, that helps the team a lot. It helps out Thorson because you can tell he’s struggled without that go-to receiver.

Defensively, I’d say it’s a lot of people, but continuing to go with Tyler Lancaster. He’s kind of that rock in the middle and the defensive line. He’s firing guys up, he’s trying to get guys going. We’ve seen when that defensive line plays well, it’s hard to get guys going. Saquon Barkley, he had one big run, but besides that he had nothing all day. That’s just on the defensive line and the front seven and how they were able to get the push up front.

Q: What is your score prediction and why?

A: I think it comes down to Thorson and the offense once again, seeing if they can find a rhythm. I think they did a little bit of a better job last week, but I think Michigan State has a little too much firepower for the Wildcats to be able to pull out the win. But I do think it’ll be a close game. 

Michigan State 27-21

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