Lowes Line


MSU Preview and Prediction

By Lone Star Cat

Matchup: Michigan State Spartans (0-0) at Northwestern Wildcats (0-0)
Date: Friday, September 3, 2021, 8:00 pm CDT
Line: Northwestern (-3), o/u (45.5)

Welcome back to college football, Wildcat fans! Today we embark on a 23rd season of paying tribute to our friend and brother Marcus by continuing his NU football game previews.  They’ve been fun to do over the years, a fond remembrance of Marcus, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we do writing them.

After the Covid-shortened season of 2020 that had Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game for the second time in three seasons, the ‘Cats finished the year by topping Auburn in the Citrus Bowl for their fourth consecutive bowl victory.  They finished at 7-2 and with a top-10 ranking, the first time inside the top-10 at the end of the year since the magical season of 1995.

Following this week’s opener against the Spartans, NU has non-conference matchups with Indiana State and Ohio University in Evanston, sandwiched with a trip to Duke in between.  The Big Ten slate has trips to Lincoln, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Champaign, while the ‘Cats welcome Rutgers, Minnesota, and Iowa to Evanston, with a home game against Purdue at Wrigley Field in late November.

The offseason saw plenty of action surrounding the NU program.  First, and perhaps most important, was the retirement of long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, after having been calling the defense for NU since 2008.  Hankwitz was replaced by Jim O’Neil, who had stints as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, and most recently as the defensive backs coach for the Las Vegas Raiders.  O’Neil will be hard pressed to match what NU’s defense brought to the field last year.  The defense was incredibly stingy, especially in the second half of games, as NU opponents averaged less than a TD after halftime.

Another milestone for the NU program in the offseason was that two Wildcats were taken in the first round of the NFL draft.  Offensive lineman Rashawn Slater was taken 13th by the Chargers and defensive back Greg Newsome II was taken 26th by the Browns.   Both are projected to be starters for their respective teams.   Finally, the transfer market for NU remained active in the offseason, as the ‘Cats pulled in six transfers, five of whom are on the two-deep in Week 1.

Although there’s a new defensive coordinator leading the pack, coupled with the loss of several key personnel, the defensive play is likely going to be the key factor in NU’s success this season.  Returning is sophomore Brandon Joseph, only the second NU defensive player in program history to be named a consensus All-American, after Coach Fitz.  Joseph had a great year and his highlight reel interception in the end zone during the Big Ten Championship game will likely accompany every big play he makes this year.  Defensive lineman Samdup Miller returns after opting out of the 2020 season.  Miller is a force up front, and has started 35 games in his career already.  He’ll be joined by seniors Joe Spivak and Trevor Kent to apply pressure on opposing QBs.

On the offensive side of the ball, senior QB Hunter Johnson was named the starter over sophomore transfer Ryan Hilinski, who came from the University of South Carolina.  This was a little bit of a surprise, but the bigger surprise was Fitz naming Johnson the starter a full two weeks before the season opener.  It almost makes you think Hunter Johnson has either really progressed since his rough go as the starter in 2019 after arriving from Clemson, or that Hilinski may not be as advertised just yet.  Time will tell, but if Johnson lives up to half the hype surrounding him upon his arrival in Evanston a couple years ago, NU should be in good hands.  The bigger question is not who the signal caller will be, it’s to whom the ball will be thrown.  Grad transfer Stephon Robinson is likely to be the main target.  Robinson comes to Evanston from Kansas, where he had a solid year in 2019 before getting injured in 2020.  NU doesn’t seem to again have much size at receiver, so it will be interesting to see how the offense shapes up.

The running back situation is a bit cloudy.  Sophomore Cam Porter was thought to be the feature back, but he was lost for the season with the incredibly specific “lower body injury,” which is either a fractured femur or a sprained pinkie toe.  Picking up Porter’s duties running the ball will be Evan Hull, who showed some sparks in the win over Illinois last season.  Grad transfer Andrew Clair from Bowling Green is also likely to get time carrying the ball.

NU again starts the season with a conference game, having emerged victorious in 2018 at Purdue and last year vs Maryland when starting the season against a conference opponent.  It’s not lost on most NU fans that getting off on the right foot in conference play has led to a division title in each of those seasons.

I could break down the Michigan State offense and defense and get into how NU should have the advantage if they can stop the run, given their strong secondary, but let’s face it… you don’t care.  What we do care about is that these little buggers in green were the only ones to topple the ‘Cats in the regular season in 2020, all but eliminating the dream of a playoff spot for NU.  The revenge factor has to be high.  NU wasted a great opportunity last season in East Lansing, and while the personnel has changed a fair amount, you can bet Fitz will not have forgotten what happened last time out against Sparty.

The so-called and often self-proclaimed experts say to look for a low scoring game, but what do they know?  We’ve been doing this stuff for more than 20 years!  NU’s second-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian gets the ‘Cats moving early, and we get more scoring in the opener than expected out of NU, as they avenge 2020’s lone regular season loss.

Pick:  Northwestern 30, Michigan State 20.  Take the ‘Cats and lay the points.

Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Lone Star Cat, GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2021 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!