Rapid Recap: Michigan State 38, Northwestern 21


Graduate transfer receiver Stephon Robinson, Jr. looks downfield in his first game in Wildcat colors. Northwestern failed to defend its home turf in its season opener, losing to Michigan State 38-21.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Northwestern proved in 2020 that a regular season loss to Michigan State couldn’t derail its hopes of Big Ten title contention and postseason success.

This year, the Wildcats (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will have to prove it again.

264 rushing yards and four touchdowns from Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III and a mistake-free showing from quarterback Payton Thorne, who was announced as the starter mere moments before game time, helped the Spartans (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) run away with a 38-21 season-opening rout of their black-and-gold-clad hosts.

Michigan State blitzed the Cats with touchdowns on its first two possessions, including a 75-yard rushing touchdown by Walker on the game’s first play from scrimmage, and didn’t look back. While NU senior quarterback Hunter Johnson demonstrated the poise and touch that eluded him in his rough sophomore season, the Spartans defense kept NU off the scoreboard until the final minute of the first half and kept the Cats at bay after the break with steady red zone defense.

In the fourth quarter, Johnson pulled NU within two scores with a 16-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that included two fourth-down conversions and perfect 11-for-11 passing. But Walker wouldn’t let the Cats’ quarterback steal the show, responding with a 50-yard dash and an 8-yard fourth-down scamper that set up a 37-yard field goal.

A 14-yard touchdown pass, Johnson’s third of the night, closed the deficit to 10 before Michigan State sealed the game with another score from Walker.


1. O’Neil’s defense gashed in defensive coordinator’s debut
The Spartans took it to new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s defense from the start. Walker escaped a tackle attempt from senior safety Bryce Jackson and turned up the left sideline for a 75-yard house call just seconds into the game, then tacked on another touchdown on the ensuing drive to boost the Spartans to an early 14-0 lead — all within the game’s first eight minutes. Michigan State’s offense had its way with the Cats’ unit through the air and on the ground, threatening to turn the game into a rout before the halftime break.

The Spartans’ onslaught slowed down in the second quarter, but the NU defense couldn’t make the game-changing plays that were the signature of its 2020 version. Thorne also wisely declined to test All-American sophomore safety Brandon Joseph. The Cats’ defense taking a step back from its perch atop the Big Ten was understandable, but the game’s defining highlight, Walker’s season-opening burst, and four-touchdown performance suggests that NU’s defense is a work in progress. And NU’s 2020 formula — turnover-free offense and lockdown defense — might not be a feasible path to victory in 2021.

2. Johnson looks the part of a Big Ten quarterback in career night
Johnson’s first Big Ten start in 2019 shared striking similarities with this contest — both at home against the Michigan State defense. That game, an abysmal 26-10 loss, saw the Clemson transfer account for just 88 passing yards and an interception.
Two years later, Johnson looked like a different player, though the final score might not show it. Despite a struggling running game, Johnson held his own against the Michigan State defense in the first half and even flashed the passing ability that had Cats fans salivating when he arrived in Evanston. He tested the Spartan secondary deep with passes of over 40 yards to Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson, Jr. and led NU within Michigan State’s 30-yard line on four of the Cats’ first six drives. By halftime, he’d already surpassed his career-high in passing yards, and his final stat line, 283 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, justified coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision to name him starter.

Johnson’s encouraging season debut bodes well for an NU offense that suffered heavy personnel losses in its backfield and on the perimeter and should fortify him in the QB1 role for NU’s upcoming non-conference stretch.

3. The Cats’ execution not at midseason level
In a primetime, nationally televised game that NU was favored to win, the Spartans looked ready for the bright lights, and, for most of the first half, the Cats did not. Early drives into Michigan State territory proved fruitless after graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 44-yard attempt sailed right and Johnson’s fourth-down pass found the sideline. A couple unforced errors, an errant snap by senior center Sam Gerak and a fumbled throw attempt by Johnson, nearly spelled disaster for the Cats’ offense. And while the NU offense tore through the Michigan State defense with three plays of over 40 yards, the group failed to capitalize on its scoring opportunities, while the Spartans got it done. Add in missed tackles on defense and Kuhbander’s two misses and no unit emerged guilt-free.

While a third-straight defeat at the hands of the Spartans will sting, a three-game stretch against Indiana State, Duke and Ohio offers NU the chance to right the ship ahead of a grueling fall slate in the Big Ten.

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Twitter: @john_ riker

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