Michigan State Spartans at Northwestern Wildcats Game Preview


The Northwestern Wildcats host the Michigan State Spartans on Friday night in the season opener for both teams. It’s also the latest installment in a series that’s spawned numerous wild and wacky games, as well as a few milestones and records.

The 2017 meeting took three overtimes to decide, as NU won at home 39-31. The Cats ruined State’s Homecoming in 2016, winning 54-40 in a game that broke numerous Spartan Stadium records, all of which were great for the visitors and bad for the hosts. In 2018, the Wildcats came to East Lansing as double digit underdogs and left as double digit victors.

Northwestern vs. Michigan State FYIs

As we noted above, this series can be very tricky for those who are into Sports and odds. The last few years of MSU football have pretty much meant “bet the under,” but this one might have more total scoring than you might expect, as both sides bring inexperienced defenses to the table. (Although both sides will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks too). The bookies see this as a closely contested affair, with Northwestern being favored by only -2.5 to 3 points. The over/under is 45.5 with the Spartans available on the money line at +130.

It’s a very late broadcast (WGN Radio AM-720; ESPN on television) kicking off at 8pm locally, 9 in the eastern time zone where MSU fans live. That’s pretty brutal for those of us here on central time, but just plain awful for our friends in the eastern time zone. Given how TV needlessly extends things, plus the fact that season openers often drag on due to excess penalties, it could be close to 1am, or even later, in Michigan by the time this thing is settled.

More Series Milestones and Highlights

In 2019, then MSU coach Mark Dantonio came to Ryan Field and surpassed Duffy Daugherty as the all-time wins leader in school history. The 2006 meeting in Evanston saw Michigan State rally back from a 38-3 deficit to win 41-38. The Wildcats’ 35 point blown lead in that one remains a NCAA football record.

Of course, nothing was more utterly loco and than the ending to the 2001 meeting. Here is the box score scoring summary from the last 32 seconds, courtesy of ESPN.com’s college football page:

That’s right three lead changes and 17 points scored in just over half of a single minute! WOW!

michigan state northwestern

Northwestern Synopsis

“I did not forget that that was our one regular season loss last year,” said Brandon Joseph, Northwestern’s sophomore safety of the Spartans.

Joseph is an All-American defensive back, who understands the art of playing DB as well or better than anybody out there.

He’ll be entrusted with making plays and anchoring a defense that is very young and inexperienced, but has some quality and depth on the line.

Joseph is a team co-captain, along with OL Sam Gerak, LB Chris Bergin, DL/FB Joe Spivak and QB1 Hunter Johnson, who surprisingly beat out South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinksi for the gig. Johnson did not throw a pass last season, but he did start a few games in 2019, when he had an utterly dreadful season.

However, he was considered among the top quarterback recruits in his class, and he did have some success albeit in very limited action, at Clemson before he transferred to NU. He has the tools and skills to be very good, let’s see if he can air it out over Michigan State’s infamous “no fly zone.”

Northwestern has had some sneaky good, underrated quarterbacks over the years, and perhaps this will be the season that Johnson turns it around…maybe? For more on the rest of the Wildcats go to our season preview link.

Michigan State Synopsis

Coaches are judged by winning games, not the press conference, but wow Mel Tucker is beyond brutal to listen to.

Yes, the MSU football brand has been associated with ground and pound, defense first style, and yes, approaching the game this way does yield frequent usage of cliches. They are the specific cliches that fit the “gritty blue collar” motif, and Mel Tucker took it up a notch, while appearing on stage at Big Ten Media Day:

“When you think about Michigan State, think about Michigan State football, you think of tough, hard-nosed, physical, meat and potatoes, not a lot of French pastries, all-weather football. That’s what Michigan State football is all about. Rugged, lunch pail, it’s a working program. It’s for the people. It’s for the fans.”

He then re-iterated his Bingo sheet for “blue collar football” during his podium time, even throwing in a “where the rubber meets the road.” Tucker was basically cartoonish when he did his media opps, and this was almost beyond parody.

It would be brilliant though if Tucker than came out an ran a fun ‘n’ gun offense or the run ‘n’ shoot with four or even five wide receiver sets. It would be like he was playing four-dimensional chess against us all along.

Tucker still has not indicated who the QB1 will be for this game, but it’s gonna be either Payton Thorne, who took over as a starter in midweek, or Temple transfer Anthony Russo. The guy who began the year as the starter, Rocky Lombardi (whose name sounds like an app that auto-generates sports motivational prose and speeches), has transferred to Northern Illinois.

Prediction: Northwestern 28, Michigan State 21 

Tucker also said that “the whole world will be watching” this one. Dude, Canada and Mexico, the two countries that border us, won’t even really be interested in this. Don’t bet against Pat Fitzgerald (he has an immaculate record in curtain raisers) in a season opener, especially when he’s playing a team that went 2-5 last season.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


  1. […] affair. If you want to take the Spartans, the best bets are available on the money line at +130. It’s a late broadcast (WGN Radio AM-720; ESPN on television) kicking off at 8pm locally, 9 in the eastern time […]

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