NCAA Football: Michigan State Spartans vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview, Prediction & Odds - Sept. 3, 2021

by Chuck Sommers

Game time: 9 p.m. ET; Sept. 3, 2021
Venue: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Where to watch: ESPN

Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks

DraftKings: Northwestern -3; O/U 45; ML: Northwestern -155, Michigan State +135
BetMGM: Northwestern -3; O/U 46.5; ML: Northwestern -164, Michigan State +135
FanDuel: Northwestern -3.5; O/U 44.5; ML: Northwestern -164, Michigan State +134

2020 season record
Michigan State: 2-5 (2-5)
Northwestern: 7-2 (6-1); won Citrus Bowl vs. Auburn

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Michigan State - Northwestern preview and analysis

Last meeting: Michigan State won 29-20 on Nov. 28, 2020

Being a fan, or an alumni, of the Northwestern Wildcats, has got to be agonizing.

For a program that’s been as competitive for the past 15 years as Northwestern has, it never seems to get over the proverbial hump. Case in point, coming within a few plays of going to the Rose Bowl at the expense of Ohio State.

The Wildcats settled for a spot in the Citrus Bowl, and also won the thing, by beating Auburn.

The Big Ten remains a difficult conference, but it should be expected for Northwestern to remain competitive. They’ll get a start on the conference proceedings on Friday when they host the Michigan State Spartans in the B10 opener for both schools.

What you have to understand about Northwestern is that they’re not the most electrifying program. But under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the culture has been able to be the one constant thing to come out of NU. Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to 10 bowl appearances entering his 15th season as coach, and he’s won five of his last six bowl appearances.

But last year was a banner season for NU, perhaps the best in Fitzgerald’s tenure. The Wildcats finished 10th in the AP Poll and won the Big Ten West Division. They took a 10-3 lead into halftime of the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, only for the Buckeyes to rally as expected and win 22-10.

Northwestern enters this season on the outside looking in of the top-25 (27th by way of votes), but a strong start to the season will get them back into the rankings. The Wildcats will go to senior QB Hunter Johnson to lead the Northwestern offense this season. He appeared in two games, but was primarily the backup to quarterback Peyton Ramsey last season.

As Fitzgerald continues a long, successful run with the Wildcats, Michigan State is about to enter Year 2 of the Mel Tucker era. The first year didn’t pan out well, going 2-5 in only MSU’s second losing season since 2006 and two of its games were canceled due to COVID.

After a lackluster season on offense, the Spartans are hoping for a more rounded offense with two compelling options. On one hand is redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne, the other is grad transfer Anthony Russo. Given the landscape of the Spartans, experience may not matter here unless Russo catches fire in East Lansing.

Offensive analysis

Michigan State: We touched briefly on Michigan State’s offensive woes last year. It’s no exaggeration: The Spartans scored 18 points per game splitting time between Thorne and starter Rocky Lombardi. The running game also died out last year, averaging 91.7 yards per game on the ground.

Northwestern: Offense has never been a priority for the Wildcats; they made the conference title game by only scoring a shade under 25 a game. They won’t ask a lot from Johnson, but if he can be a serviceable quarterback, the ‘Cats may have something.

Defensive analysis

Michigan State: When your offense is that bad, it leaves the defense in a horrible position. The Spartans gave up an uncharacteristic 35.1 points last year, likely because they were dead tired throughout each week. The rush defense carried the blunt of this, giving up 158 yards on the ground.

Northwestern: This is why NU was 30 minutes from a trip to the Rose Bowl. No one could score on this defense, the fifth-best scoring defense in the league at 15.9 points per game. They’ve lost some key pieces like Blake Gallagher, but return Brandon Joseph who had six interceptions as a redshirt freshman.


The quarterback battle will be key here, but if that defense travels yet again, this should be a victory for Northwestern. The spread is a curious play here, but it should be another home victory for the Wildcats. Northwestern wins 27-10.

Betting trends

Northwestern has won four of its last five games as a home favorite against the spread. 

The over has cashed eight of the last nine times Northwestern has been a straight-up favorite.

Michigan State has lost eight of its last 10 games as an underdog straight up.

Statistical leaders from 2020

Michigan State:
Passing: Rocky Lombardi -- 1,090 yards, 8 TD, 9 INT
Rushing: Jordan Simmons -- 219 yards
Receiving: Jalen Nailor -- 515 yards, 4 TD
Defense: Drew Beesley & Michael Fletcher -- 3 sacks

Passing: Peyton Ramsey -- 1,733 yards, 12 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Cam Porter -- 333 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman -- 508 yards, 5 TD
Defense: Paddy Fisher -- 86 tackles

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Chuck Sommers

About the Author:

Chuck Sommers has camped outside of sportsbooks since he can remember, learning the tricks and nuances of the trade. He still has nightmares of betting $5,000 on the Raiders in the Tuck Rule game but has since turned that to 25 years of veteran handicapping greatness. You can find him mostly in the shadows at the Red Rock or Aliante casinos wondering if the over is cashing on any given Sunday.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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