Getting the series started with a game ‘Cats fans have had circled on their calendars for a while.
The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Up first are the Michigan State Spartans, who upset the ‘Cats 29-20 in the 2020 season.
Returning Production: 69 percent overall (Offense 80 percent, Defense 63 percent)
2020 record: 2-5
Coach: Mel Tucker
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 59th
2020 S&P+ Offense: 94th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 18th
The Spartans were predicted to finish fifth in the East division of the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Indiana. In Mel Tucker’s first season as the head coach of MSU — a year full of positive COVID-19 tests and canceled games — the Spartans went 2-5 and finished last in their division.
Michigan State lost their home opener to Rutgers 38-27, a true shock given the recent history of the two programs. The Spartans outgained the Scarlet Knights by 93 yards and had seven more first downs but had a dreadful seven turnovers, something they were determined to fix the following week. MSU pulled off a big 27-24 upset against their arch rival, the No. 13 ranked Michigan Wolverines at the Big House. After giving up the ball seven times in week one, the Spartans didn’t turn it over once in Ann Arbor, and Rocky Lombardi had his best game of the season, throwing for 323 yards and three touchdowns on only seventeen completions.
Any optimism for the Spartans’ season, however, went out the window the next two weeks. In their next game, they were down 35-0 at halftime versus Iowa and Lombardi’s three interceptions secured a 49-7 defeat. Things didn’t improve versus the No. 10 Indiana Hoosiers, as a rocky start for Lombardi, including two interceptions, brought freshman Payton Thorne to the field. The Spartans’ miserable rushing attack, along with a mediocre debut from Thorne, resulted in a 24-0 loss moving the team to 1-3.
Michigan State’s week five contest versus Maryland was canceled, and I’d rather not talk about their week six win, i.e. their only other win of the season. But alas, the truth often hurts. MSU ended the Northwestern’s hopes of an undefeated season thanks to 195 rushing yards of their own and four Wildcat turnovers. The Spartans then finished their shortened season by getting beat down 52-12 at the hands of Ohio State, which they then followed up with a 39-24 loss to Penn State. Their makeup game vs the Terrapins was again canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests.
The Spartans did not qualify for a bowl game and ended an 80-year NFL draft streak when no Spartans were selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
The Spartans 2-5 record was indicative of their poor offensive play during the 2020 campaign. They only averaged 18 points per game and had 14 total touchdowns all season. Their offense finished ranked 116th out of the 127 teams in the FBS. There’s reason for optimism though, as 80% of their offensive production is returning in 2021.
Lombardi’s transfer to Northern Illinois University sets up a QB battle for the Spartans. Thorne, the third-year sophomore, is the favorite to start week one against the ‘Cats, but Anthony Russo, the graduate transfer from Temple, has the most experience in the crowded QB room and might get the nod. Junior Theo Day, redshirt freshman Noah Kim and true freshman Hamp Fay will compete to take the field for MSU too.
The Spartans will return their primary backs in Connor Heyward and Jordon Simmons, as well as their leading receivers, Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed. With more experience under their belt, Michigan State’s skill positions should see growth in Tucker and Jay Johnson’s second season as head coach and offensive coordinator.
It can’t go without saying that having a new coach and offensive coordinator last year, of all seasons, had to be a struggle. Tucker and the Spartans will hope for a normal season where there can be more focus on the game with fewer COVID-19 restrictions, not to mention the effect the return of big crowds may have.
Teams had their way against the Spartans’ defense most of the time in 2020, as Michigan State allowed 35 points and nearly 400 yards per game. Their run defense was particularly vulnerable, giving up 157.3 rushing yards per game and four yards a carry. They allowed 20 rushing touchdowns on the season, as well as 20 red zone touchdowns in 32 trips.
MSU’s passing defense, however, was rather stingy, allowing only eight passing touchdowns while also compiling five interceptions. Passers had a 61% completion rate and averaged 239.4 yards per game through the air, and for their pass rush the Spartans racked up 12 sacks for 71 yards, which was tied for 91st in the FBS.
The Spartans’ leading tackler — Antjuan Simmons — graduated, but fifth-year senior Noah Harvey — the second-leading tackler last season for MSU — will look to fill the void. Their defensive line is full of freshmen, so Drew Beesley’s veteran leadership could come in handy. Beesley earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from Pro Football Focus in 2020 after posting a career-high 27 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss, and a career-best three sacks in starting all seven games.
Michigan State also added a graduate transfer from Duke in defensive end Drew Jordan, who started 21 games for the Blue Devils from 2017-2020. Jordan isn’t the only player to go to Lansing through the transfer portal, as the Spartans landed 18 players who left their former schools. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton is another member of Tucker’s staff that could benefit from a season with the Spartans under more normal conditions.
Three Players to Know
Jordon Simmons, RB
With uncertainty at the quarterback position, expect the Spartans to embrace a ground-oriented attack that doesn’t put their quarterback in a position to fail. Jay Johnson is an ex-quarterbacks coach, but until the QB question is answered, it stands to reason that at least at the beginning of the season the Spartans will be a run-first offense. As a freshman, Simmons had 56 carries for 219 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Heyward, who will be a senior, only had nine more carries and averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Simmons missed two games due to injury but returned against Penn State and averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 14 carries, and he came to Michigan State ranked as one of the best running back prospects in the nation. Only a year removed from high school, his chance to have a breakout year starts against Northwestern.
Xavier Henderson, S
The Spartans lost five defensive backs and only four secondary members from 2020 remain on the team. They did add several defensive backs through the transfer portal, but also bring in four freshmen that will hope to get playing time. It’s a crowded group of newcomers, and it’s hard to say exactly who will be the field for them in 2021, making Xavier Henderson — their only returning senior in the secondary — one of the Spartans’ most important defensive players. Henderson was MSU’s third-leading tackler last season and second in solo tackles, while also forcing two fumbles. If the Spartans are to improve their defense in 2021, then Henderson will need to have another solid season of production.
Anthony Russo, QB
This one is difficult because it’s possible Tucker and Johnson go with Thorne in week one and Russo doesn’t even face NU. However, if the graduate transfer from Temple impresses Johnson, it’s possible the Spartans go with the experienced player to start the year. Both quarterbacks are likely to play this season, but it would make sense if Russo is given the early reps so that Thorne has more time to learn and develop.