For the first time since the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl against Wake Forest, the Michigan State football team will play in front of a packed stadium Friday night as they hit the road to open the 2021-22 season at Northwestern.
The big question every MSU fan will be wondering going into this matchup: who will be the starting quarterback come game day? Will it be graduate student Anthony Russo or redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne? With kickoff just a few days away, the answer remains the same; we are simply not sure.
However, Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker said the players may know, meaning the decision has possibly already been made, but it has not been revealed and may not be until the offense trots out on the field. Tucker believes that having an element of surprise could work as a benefit this weekend.
"You don't want to do anything to give your opponent any type of an advantage," Tucker said. "You don't want to put your team at a disadvantage by the information you communicate and that you put out there. Everything that we do is about our team. What’s best for our players, our team, our organization.”
The Spartans utilized the transfer portal aggressively to transform the roster, bringing in 20 transfers, some of whom will likely receive significant playing time. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch and cornerbacks Ronald Williams and Chester Kimbrough are expected to see the field a considerable amount on the defensive side. Offensively, running back Kenneth Walker III and, if awarded the position, Anthony Russo should impact this game.
Though, that does not account for the 15 others who joined MSU this year in hopes of new opportunities and possibly more playing time. Tucker has stressed ever since taking over as head coach that he will play whoever is available and playing well, regardless of tenure.
“We’re gonna play as many guys as we can and those roles are still being set.” Tucker said. “We have guys that can play multiple positions. We have depth at linebacker and in the secondary, and, so, we’ll just have to see how it shakes out at the end of the week.”
Scouting the opponent
Last year, Northwestern had one of its best seasons in a while, finishing with a 7-2 record and ranking No. 10 in the final AP poll. The reigning Big Ten West champions fell 22-10 to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, a game in which they led 10-6 at halftime. They closed out the season on a high note with a commanding 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
So, Northwestern is no cakewalk like they have been in some past seasons. Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald had the Wildcats playing very well last year; that may be the same this year.
Despite that, one of MSU's two wins in 2020 came against these very Wildcats. Last November, MSU defeated Northwestern at Spartan Stadium 29-20 in one of its best performances all year.
They ran the ball well, with 195 total yards, took care of the football with just one turnover and had a stout defensive performance, forcing four Northwestern turnovers. All three of those aspects rarely occurred in 2020. Even when they did, it was never in the same game. While it is nice to have won against the Wildcats last year, Tucker believes only so much can be taken from that game.
“This is a new year and we have a new team, and so do they,” Tucker said. “The past is not necessarily predictive of the future. We just have to play the games.”
Like MSU, Northwestern had a lot of turnover on its roster, most notably at the quarterback position. Peyton Ramsey is out, leading to senior Hunter Johnson being named the week one starter after beating out sophomore Ryan Hilinski in a position battle.
Additionally, Northwestern lost three players to the NFL Draft. Offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, who opted out of the 2020 season, was selected 13th overall to the Los Angeles Chargers. Defensive back Greg Newsome II was selected 26th overall to the Cleveland Browns and defensive lineman Earnest Brown IV was a fifth-round selection by the Los Angeles Rams.
Northwestern also took advantage of the opportunities in the transfer portal, with some players that will likely make an impact Friday night. Graduate student Stephon Robinson Jr., a transfer from Kansas, immediately slots into the top wide receiver role for the Wildcats after an outstanding 2019 and injury-plagued 2020.
Northwestern’s identity remains the same, though, and it all starts with the the team's defense. Jim O’Neil is the new defensive coordinator, but the Wildcats’ defense is expected to still be a strength.
On the field, they are led by safety Brandon Joseph, who could very well be the best in the nation at this position. He was a consensus All-American last season, grabbing six interceptions —tied for most in the country— and allowing zero touchdowns while in coverage. He was selected to the AP First Team Preseason All-America coming into this season and is on multiple watch lists.
Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on ESPN.
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