Saturday, May 30, 2020

Scouting Northwestern: Spartans look to snap three-game losing streak against Wildcats

September 18, 2019
<p>Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) collides with Northwestern&#x27;s senior lineman Tommy Doles (71) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 6, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Wildcats led the Spartans, 14-6 at halftime. </p>

Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) collides with Northwestern's senior lineman Tommy Doles (71) during the game against Northwestern on Oct. 6, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Wildcats led the Spartans, 14-6 at halftime.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

The last time that Michigan State traveled to Ryan Field to play Northwestern in 2017, Brian Lewerke threw for a school-record 445 yards in the Spartans' 39-31 triple-overtime loss. But, one throw still gets to him — and it wasn't any of his 39 completions.

As Lewerke dropped back on second-and-10 in the final overtime, Northwestern defensive end Joe Gaziano knocked the ball out of his hand. Lewerke picked the ball up and threw across his body into double coverage where tight end Matt Sokol stood in the end zone.

Interception. Game over.

“I remember it was pretty cold pregame," Lewerke said after Tuesday's practice. "Obviously, had a pretty good game, kept fighting in overtime. If I could have that throw back at the end, I would like to but I feel comfortable playing there.” 

It was the second consecutive year the Wildcats beat Michigan State. They did it again in 2018. So, for the first time ever, when the Spartans travel to Evanston, they will try to avoid a four-game losing streak to Northwestern.

In 2016, former Northwestern running back Justin Jackson ran for over 180 yards and two touchdowns to help the Wildcats beat Michigan State 54-40 and hand the Spartans its fourth-straight loss on the year. Last season, former quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for over 370 yards and senior wideout Flynn Nagel caught 10 receptions for 111 yards to lead the Wildcats to a 29-19 win.

As Michigan State's starting quarterback, Lewerke has never beaten the Wildcats. He will try to accomplish that feat in his final chance this Saturday (12:00 p.m. ET/ 11:00 a.m. CT, ABC).

“There was a little bit of focus pre-season, especially during camp," Lewerke said. "We always mark Michigan on our calendar, obviously, but we kind of put a little extra on this one because we haven’t beaten them since 2013 and I haven’t beat them since I've been here, and I feel like they’re a team that we should be able to beat.”

To do that, the Spartans will need to play sound football. That is what senior defensive end Raequan Williams — a Chicago native — said he's noticed with the Wildcats in the past three meetings.

“They don’t beat themselves. That's the main thing I've seen these past three years," Williams said. "They always execute and the team that executes more is going to end up winning. We definitely have to out-execute them this game.” 

Northwestern (1-1) comes into Saturday's game with a new-look offense. Quarterback Clayton Thorson has graduated and now plays for the Dallas Cowboys. In three career starts against the Spartans, Thorson threw for eight touchdowns.

Enter Hunter Johnson.

Johnson, a former five-star recruit and transfer from Clemson, has thrown for 220 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in Northwestern's two games against Stanford and UNLV. In 2017, he threw for two touchdowns in six games for the Tigers before transferring when current Clemson starter Trevor Lawrence enrolled early in 2018.

“Very strong arm," Bachie said of Johnson. "When he’s comfortable in his progression he’s throwing the ball exactly where it needs to go. Highly recruited type guy. We only have two games of film on him, really other than his Clemson days when he played there. He’s a strong arm guy. He can run the ball a little bit and it's going to be a good challenge.”

The Wildcats also sport a strong tandem in the backfield with Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson.

Bowser ran for 54 yards on 10 carries against the Cardinal in the Wildcats' season opening loss. He missed Northwestern's home opener against the Rebels last week. Bowser was listed as Northwestern's starting running back on its depth chart this week. Last season, Bowser ran for almost 900 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games for Northwestern.

Anderson, who stepped into the lineup in Bowser's absence ran for 148 yards and a touchdown in last week's win against the Rebels. In last season's game against Michigan State, Anderson carried the ball only five times for 12 yards.

Defensively, Northwestern will run out one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten, headlined by Paddy Fisher and Chris Bergin. And Gaziano is back as a senior to try to cause havoc yet again.

“Their defense is kind of similar to ours in a sense," Lewerke said. "Both teams have very good linebacker play.” 

As seniors, Lewerke, Williams and Bachie don't want to leave any regrets. Graduating without a win against the Wildcats would be one of them. And that has given the Spartans a little extra motivation for Saturday's matchup.

“Nobody here has beat them yet and that’s what we’re going for, obviously, this week," Bachie said. "Obviously, they’re trying to go for four straight, so it's going to be a battle. We know that. We've just got to make sure we execute well this Saturday.” 

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