Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Know Thy Enemy: Michigan State opening season up under the lights at Northwestern

September 3, 2021
<p>Michigan State University quarterback Rocky Lombardi breaking out of the pocket to run for first down against Northwestern on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.</p>

Michigan State University quarterback Rocky Lombardi breaking out of the pocket to run for first down against Northwestern on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Photo by Di'Amond Moore | The State News

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. This week, The State News' Sam Sklar spoke with The Daily Northwestern's Gameday Editor Drew Schott.

After playing an entire season with no fans, Michigan State will play its first game with fans back in attendance as they travel to Evanston to take on Northwestern Friday at 9 p.m.

Both rosters have a lot of turnover, especially at quarterback where both teams will have a different starter than they did to start the 2020 season, creating a lot of uncertainty for how the game will play out. 

Q: Like Michigan State, Northwestern had a quarterback battle this offseason with Hunter Johnson ultimately prevailing over Ryan Hilinski. What kind of quarterback is he? What do you expect from him Friday night? Do you think it was the right decision?

A: For Michigan State fans, the last time you saw Hunter Johnson was in 2019 and it was a 31-10 loss. I believe he threw for 88 yards two interceptions and did not finish the game. Sits last year behind Peyton Ramsey, All-Big Ten Third Team honoree leads Northwestern to a Big Ten West title and a Citrus Bowl win. What’s interesting about Hunter is that coaches have said he is more confident, he is more consistent, and he’s making all the right decisions. He’s building rapport with his receivers and he’s making his check downs. They announced the quarterback 17 days before the season opener against the Spartans, which is pretty unusual. Over the last two years at Northwestern, for example in 2019 when Hunter was announced the starter over T.J. Green, it was I think two minutes before kickoff... I’d say he’s someone who is going to be pretty good in short and medium passing situations and can sometimes go at the long ball when needed.

Q: Brandon Joseph is obviously the big star of the team, but what about his game makes him so good? How do you see him impacting the game on Friday?

A: Brandon Joseph knows how to find the ball. That is plain and simple what he brings to the team...What he brings, he is one of the captains this year as a sophomore, which is a pretty outstanding achievement. He was a consensus All-American last year. In addition to finding the ball, he brings a sense of physicality to this defense. If he is not catching the ball or making a breakup, he is always at the ball making a tackle...he helps elevate a secondary. He has talked about how Northwestern is really the place for a defensive back to go and thrive. With Jim O’Neil coming in who has experience with NFL secondaries, I think you can possibly expect his play to increase. He was talking about last year he was the young guy in the room and now he has to be the leader. I think we will see an increased leadership role on this defense in addition to this team for Brandon Joseph. But I think you are going to probably see many of the same things you saw last year: him being at the ball, making plays, making interceptions if he is able to get the opportunity.

Q: Who is one player or matchup that you think is going to be the biggest X-factor for the game?

A: I think Jalen Nailor versus Cameron Mitchell is going to be the most interesting matchup that we are going to see. Cameron Mitchell had the lowest passer rating allowed in the Big Ten, lower than Greg Newsome who was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns 26th overall. Jalen Nailor last year, I think he had three catches for 99 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern. It’s clear that Northwestern probably remembers the type of playmaker that he is and Cam Mitchell at the moment, according to the depth chart, appears to be cornerback No. 1. It’s going to be interesting to see how they both matchup.

Q: What is your final prediction for Friday’s game?

A: I think this is going to be a classic Big Ten football game, but even though Northwestern does lack experience from its returning production, and while Michigan State does bring in 20 transfers, I believe that Northwestern’s offensive line is going to play an important role in this game and I also believe that even though Northwestern’s defense lost some starters, that players like Chris Bergin are going to be difference makers. Hunter Johnson, it will be interesting to see how he performs and I honestly think his performance could impact the game. But I think it’s going to be a classic, hard-fought Big Ten battle. I do think at the end of the day after Friday night under the lights of Ryan Field in Evanston that Northwestern is going to win a close one. Northwestern 27, Michigan State 21.

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