Monday, January 18, 2021

Know Thy Enemy: Michigan State faces Big Ten West leader Northwestern

November 28, 2020

Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State football's opponent

Michigan State will be returning to the field for the first time since losing in a shutout to No. 12 Indiana two weeks ago after last week’s matchup versus Maryland was canceled due to COVID-19.

The Spartans are returning home to face Big Ten West leader No. 8 Northwestern, who is one win away from clinching their spot in the Big Ten title game after defeating No. 18 Wisconsin last week.

The State News sat down with Andrew Golden of The Daily Northwestern to preview the upcoming matchup.

Q: Northwestern has really flipped the script from last year to this year after finishing 3-9 to being one game away from clinching the Big Ten West. What changed?

A: I think it has to be the offense. Last year they had Mick McCall, who was the offensive coordinator. Clayton Thorson, who I would say is arguably the best quarterback in the history of Northwestern, he graduates. Then there's kind of a quarterback controversy on who’s going to be quarterbacking the offense. I think for the time Thorson was there, a lot of the issues of the offense were covered up because of the way that Thorson ran the offense. So, then when he left, none of the quarterbacks groomed well enough to get to replace him. They played four quarterbacks last season in Hunter Johnson, TJ Green, Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty. This year, they went out in the transfer portal and got Peyton Ramsey. They hired a new offensive coordinator named Mike Bajakian who really stressed getting the ball in the playmakers hands and let them make plays. Ramsey, he's a graduate transfer quarterback, but he's gotten experience at Indiana in the past three or four years, so all that combines to create a consistent offense. The defense has always been amazing. I think last year the defense got really tired toward the end of the season because the offense was just that bad. 

Q: This Northwestern defense has shut down every team they have faced so far, including holding Wisconsin to seven points last week. What’s the source of the defense's success?

A: They're getting really consistent play from all three levels. The defensive line seems like they get better and better each week. Eku Leota is really leading the way with sacks on that defense, and there’s also Earnest Brown, who was getting a lot of pressure. Then you look at the linebacking core, that's the best position group with any of the positions that Northwestern has. Three seniors with Blake Gallagher, Chris Bergin and Paddy Fisher, the three of them have been starters for the last two years. Fisher started since he was a redshirt freshman, so the three of them have been really consistent. The secondary Brandon Joseph is leading the country in interceptions. Greg Newsome is probably one of the best corners in the Big Ten. He got his first interception last week, which is kind of wild to think about because Newsome has been consistent for his three years at Northwestern. Just a consistent level in all three phases of the ball. You're not going to run the ball on Northwestern and teams really haven’t been able to pass the ball on them either, so they’ve just been consistent all around.

Q: Is there a weakness for this Northwestern defense that could be exploited?

A: I would have to say probably through the air. Northwestern’s front seven has been consistently one of the best front sevens in the Big Ten, so I think if you're going to beat Northwestern it's going to have to be through the air. You’re not typically going to run the ball against Northwestern. I think it's kind of an identity over the years. There's a lot of experience there. I mean you look at Newsome, you look at JR Pace being a senior safety, there's a lot of experience. It's kind of hard to pinpoint one area where the defense has a weakness. I think if there’s any weakness on the team it’s probably the offense if anything.

Q: Quarterback Peyton Ramsey came into Northwestern as a graduate transfer this offseason from Indiana. How would you rate his performance so far?

A: He has done the little things. He's found ways to convert in clutch situations on third downs throughout the season and hasn't made any major mistakes. He's had a couple of interceptions here and there, but he hasn't made any crazy mistakes that have cost them the game. He’s just doing a really good job of being a leader on offense and is making the right decisions for the most part. He’s slipped up here and there, but it hasn't been anything that has been shocking. He’s just controlling and being a leader for the offense. 

Q: What’s your final prediction for Saturday’s game?

A: I know that Michigan State had a rocky offense throughout the season. I think that Northwestern's experienced defense can take advantage of it. I feel like Northwestern is waiting for a game to break out all offensively. I think if there's a time to do it, it would be the last three games, assuming they're going to win two of these last three games to make the Big Ten Championship. I would expect Northwestern to come out and have a good game on offense. My prediction is 30-13. I think Michigan State puts up a good fight. I just think Northwestern has too many weapons on defense, and I think they'll make enough plays to win.

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