Football: Northwestern seeks to avenge 2020 loss to Michigan State in nationally televised Friday night opener


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Brandon Joseph prepares to make a play. Joseph called starting the 2021 season against Michigan State “a great test” for Northwestern’s defense.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer


It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.

A little more than nine months have lapsed since the afternoon of Nov. 28, 2020 — the day Michigan State dealt then-No. 8 Northwestern its only loss of the 2020 regular season.

The Wildcats were riding high two days after Thanksgiving. A cancellation of Colorado’s game at No. 18 USC thrust NU, still unbeaten, in front of its second straight national television audience on ESPN. Amid this spotlight, the Cats fell into an early 17-point deficit and turned the ball over four times in a 29-20 loss to the Spartans in East Lansing.

That, however, was then. This is now. Only the TV station will be the same when NU kicks off its 2021 season Friday night against Michigan State at Ryan Field. A revamped and reloaded Cats team will look to turn over a new leaf against a conference foe.

“A lot of first games are easy ones,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said this week. “This being such a big game that we lost last year, a Big Ten opponent, it’s just a great opportunity to get the season started the way we want to.”

Winds of change have swept across Evanston this offseason. Longtime Athletic Director Jim Phillips decamped for North Carolina, becoming the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is retired, and the Cats will play a game without him on the sideline for the first time since Nov. 17, 2007.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who scored NU’s first touchdown against the Spartans last year, declared for the NFL Draft. Sophomore running back Cam Porter, who scored NU’s second touchdown, is out for the season with a lower-body injury. All told, the Cats return just 34% of their 2020 production on both sides of the ball — 126th among the 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that played last season.

Faces new and old will pick up the pieces for NU.

Longtime NFL assistant coach Jim O’Neil has returned to the college ranks to take Hankwitz’s post. Senior Hunter Johnson, once a highly touted Clemson recruit, will step in to replace Ramsey. Sophomore Evan Hull and graduate student Andrew Clair will head up a group effort to spell Porter. Graduate linebacker Chris Bergin is the sole holdover from the Irish Law Firm following Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher’s departures.

What contributors remain will partake in a unique season opener on a few different fronts.

It’s only the third time in the 21st Century the Cats have started their season against a conference opponent, joining 2018 (Purdue, a 31-27 win) and 2020 (Maryland, a 43-3 win). Coach Pat Fitzgerald, under whom NU beat the Boilermakers and Terrapins, called the notion of a season-opening conference game “a big blip on the radar during training camp.”

“We ask ourselves ‘What’s our why?’ as we’re working through everything,” Fitzgerald said. “To have a Big Ten team on the horizon in the opener, it definitely adds the extra 60-yard dash. The motivation is definitely there.”

A changed Michigan State squad awaits the Cats. Last year, Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi carved up NU on the ground rushing for a career-high 65 yards on 10 carries. Lombardi has since transferred to Northern Illinois, and the two-man competition to replace him has dominated headlines in East Lansing this summer.

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker told reporters this week that he knew who would pilot the Spartans’ offense in the opener but would keep it in-house. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald anointed Johnson the starter in mid-August.

Both of Michigan State’s prospective quarterbacks present challenges. If Anthony Russo gets the job, NU will have to deal with a savvy veteran — an ex-Temple Owl whose 59.6 completion percentage is the seventh-highest in the short history of the American Athletic Conference. If Naperville native Payton Thorne is the choice, the Cats will contend with a promising youngster who threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale against Penn State.

Regardless of who plays quarterback, the offensive attack that rolled up 362 yards of total offense against NU last year still carries plenty of bite. The Spartans return their two leading receivers from 2020, Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, who both figure to keep the Cats’ secondary busy Friday night.

“Michigan State’s a great team to open up with,” Joseph said. “It’s a great test to see what this team and what this defense can be.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @pandres2001

Related Stories:

Football: From the sidelines to the student section, Northwestern welcomes fans back to Ryan Field

—  Football: 2021 Northwestern positional breakdowns and season predictions

Football: Hunter Johnson building rapport with NU offense ahead of season opener