Northwestern, Michigan State open with Big Ten battle

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Hunter Johnson watched from the sideline as Northwestern won seven of nine games last season, including a Citrus Bowl triumph.

He’ll have a much different view this season.

Johnson won the starting quarterback job for the Wildcats, who open the season at home against Big Ten opponent Michigan State on Friday night.

Johnson started five games two seasons ago but didn’t throw a pass last season as Peyton Ramsey led the team to its fourth bowl victory in five seasons.

With Ramsey gone, Johnson won a training camp battle with Ryan Hilinski for the starting job.

“I was just trying to make sure I was doing everything I can to help the team,” he said. “There’s ups and downs. That’s life. That’s football. I’ve been just trying to keep plugging along and be ready for when my number is called.”

Johnson completed just 46.3 percent of his passes with one touchdown while appearing in six games two seasons ago. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald believes Johnson is much more prepared to be a starter in his senior campaign.

“He’s just grown since he’s gotten here,” Fitzgerald said. “He was probably thrust into having to start a little bit too early in the past. I think he’s really grown from that experience. I think his confidence level is very high.”

The receiving corps has been bolstered by Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson. Evan Hull and Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair are among the options at running back.

Northwestern will be looking to avenge one of its two losses last season. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats 29-20 after Northwestern won its first five games.

“Nothing better than Friday night football,” Fitzgerald said. “Takes you back to your high school roots.”

The Spartans had a spirited camp battle for their starting quarterback job. Temple transfer Anthony Russo and Payton Thorne, who appeared in four games as a redshirt freshman last season, could both see action on Friday.

They’ll have some inviting targets, including wideouts Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed, who combined for 59 receptions, 922 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

Michigan State finished 2-5 and had two games canceled.

Mel Tucker is looking forward to a less tumultuous season in his second year as the Spartans’ head coach.

“The last scrimmage we had, I felt like we got better as a football team, and we’re just really gaining ground and working to improve,” he said.

–Field Level Media

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