No. 20 Michigan State ready to face Northwestern

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward will take on Northwestern on Saturday.Photo Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State will find out over the next month whether it’s truly worthy of being ranked among the nation’s Top 25 teams.

Head coach Mark Dantonio is just as curious as anyone else where this season is headed. The No. 20 Spartans dig into the meat of their Big Ten schedule this month with games against Northwestern, No. 11 Penn State, No. 15 Michigan and Purdue. First up is a home game against the Wildcats on Saturday.

“I think you try and find your identity of every football team and you don’t know when that’s going to come,” Dantonio said. “I talked to our team (Monday) about that. What’s our identity? We talk about ‘Here’s the goals we want to accomplish this next month.’ These next four games sort of start to define you a little bit. And then you chase November.”

Following a stumble against unranked Arizona State, the Spartans (3-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) have won their last two games. They defeated Indiana 35-21 on the road, then downed non-conference opponent Central Michigan 31-20 at Spartan Stadium.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke hasn’t put up big stats this season. He’s thrown as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns. Lewerke passed for just 185 yards against the Chippewas but rushed for two scores.

Last season, Lewerke set school single-game records for passing yards (445), total offense (475) and completions (39) against the Wildcats but Michigan State lost in triple overtime, 39-31. The Spartans, who have lost three of their last four meetings with Northwestern, came into that game ranked No. 16.

“Every game’s different but he played outstanding last year, made some big throws, there were some big catches, but he continues to be the guy that drives this offense,” Dantonio said. “I think the biggest thing about Brian is that he’s got a strong foundation underneath him from last year. Confidence is not a problem and experience should not be a problem.”

A more immediate problem is the health of the players around him. The team’s top running back, LJ Scott, left the Arizona State loss with an ankle injury and has missed the last two games.

Junior left tackle Cole Chewins, who entered the season with 16 straight starts, has played just 25 snaps in three games. Junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart didn’t dress last week and sophomore wideout Cody White, the team’s leading receiver, broke his hand in the second quarter.

Northwestern (1-3, 1-1) found out prior to last week’s 20-17 loss to Michigan that its top rusher would not play again.

Sophomore tailback Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire from the sport due to cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal.

Larkin rushed for 503 yards and five touchdowns in the team’s first three games.

The Wildcats nearly pulled off an upset against the Wolverines without an effective ground game. Northwestern was limited to 28 yards on 34 carries. Larkin’s replacement, John Moten IV, gained 36 yards on 13 carries.

The Wildcats could find it just as difficult to run against the Spartans. Michigan State ranks first in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing just 40.3 yards per game. The 161 rushing yards allowed in the first four games of the season is the lowest total by a Power 5 team since 2008, according to STATS.

“We’ve got to have more production. It’s a production business, and we didn’t produce enough,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a conference call that was relayed by the Detroit News. “Now we’re playing the No. 1 rushing defense in the country so, buckle it up. Put some more air in your helmet.”

Along with last season’s thriller at home, the Wildcats also came away with a wild 54-40 triumph in their last visit to East Lansing two years ago.

“Last year was a really interesting game,” Fitzgerald said. “Two defenses played really well through regulation and then two quarterbacks got on fire in overtime and we found a way to make one play.

“One thing is we put ourselves behind in both games,” Fitzgerald added. “We were down 14-0 in Spartan Stadium in our last trip up there and I think down 10-0 last year. We can’t let that happen, but we found a way to win and that’s what it’s all about.”