Football: Northwestern readies for ‘unbelievable challenge’ of Michigan State’s defensive front


Daily File Photo by Allie Goulding

Drake Anderson fights for yards in a 2018 game against Michigan State. The Wildcats rushed for just eight yards on the day.

Jonah Dylan, Gameday Editor


In Northwestern’s last two meetings with Michigan State, the Wildcats have rushed for a combined 72 yards.

NU has won both those games, thanks to dominating performances from former quarterback Clayton Thorson and some key defensive plays, including an interception from Nate Hall to seal a triple-overtime win over the Spartans in 2017.

Still, getting the run game on track is a key for the Cats (1-1) as they look for their fourth straight win against Michigan State Saturday at Ryan Field (11 a.m. CST, ABC) in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

“We just have to take it to another level with Big Ten play. I think that’s why we all came to a place like Northwestern, to compete in the Big Ten, just to play these games that are coming up,” senior center Jared Thomas said. “This is conference play. This is for everybody in college football: this is where you define what your season is gonna be.”

NU’s rushing attack has changed in each of the last three meetings with the Spartans. In 2017, it was program legend Justin Jackson, who managed just 41 yards but also threw for a touchdown on a trick play. Drake Anderson and Solomon Vault got the majority of the carries last season in East Lansing, but neither could manage anything against the Michigan State front.

Isaiah Bowser took over as NU’s lead back through most of last season but missed last week’s win over UNLV with an injury. Bowser was not listed on the injury report for this week. In his absence, though, Anderson had his best game in purple, rushing for 141 yards in a performance reminiscent of his father, Wildcat legend Damien Anderson. So both backs could see a significant role this weekend.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the Spartan defensive front the best in the country. They’re led by 2018 All-American Kenneth Willekes, who’s already racked up four sacks this season. Offensive line coach Kurt Anderson said his unit is embracing the challenge of facing Michigan State’s front.

“It’s gonna pose an unbelievable challenge,” he said. “I’ve coached in the NFL, I’ve coached in the SEC. This is a front that rivals some of the best that I’ve seen. They’re powerful up front, they’re heavy, they got guys that can get on the edge in terms of pass rushers.”

The Spartans (2-1), who had been ranked in the preseason, are coming off a brutal 10-7 loss to Arizona State in part because of a penalty that nullified a potential game-tying field goal. With a three game gauntlet against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State fast approaching, they’ll be eager to start their Big Ten slate on the right foot.

Key to that will be the battle in the trenches, and Fitzgerald knows it’ll mean winning some tough one-on-one matchups.

“They make it really hard,” he said. “They’re really good. They know exactly what they’re doing and exactly how they want to stop you. We’ve got to try to find a way to get seams. We’re gonna be one-on-one. We’re gonna have to win, because they’re not gonna allow you to outnumber them in any shape or form in the running game.”