Game Preview


Michigan State
Ryan Field
Saturday, October 23, 11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: MSU
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) head back into action after their regular season week off and face their toughest test of the year, by far, as the undefeated and BCS No. 7 Michigan State Spartans (7-0, 3-0) travel outside of the state of Michigan for the first time this season.  The 'Cats know that they need to respond after a disheartening home loss to Purdue, but MSU looks to be a formidable opponent as they come in leading the Big Ten and are staring down a potential path towards not only a conference title, but maybe even a mythical national championship.

NU fans obviously hope that the 'Cats have been able to make some corrections after three consecutive error-filled performances to close the first half of the season, with the most notable issue being a huge penalty problem.  Getting behind the chains and handing opponents first downs does not help one's cause, and the 'Cats are averaging 9.7 penalties, 81.7 penalty yards, and 2.7 opponent first downs due to penalty over that span.  Northwestern must play more disciplined football against a tough slate to close the season in order to build on their five wins.

Another error-prone area for NU to correct is, obviously, special teams play.  MSU features one of the top punt returning threats, Keshawn Martin, who has helped the Spartans rank 10th nationally in punt return yard average at 15.3 yards per punt return.  Also, redshirt sophomore kicker Dan Conroy has been lights-out this year, hitting all 13 of his FG tries (including all 4 beyond 40 yards with a long of 50) and all 28 XP tries.  The 'Cats have been as bad in those two areas as MSU has been good: NU ranks 103rd nationally in punt returns at under 5 yards per return, while the 'Cats have hit just 8-of-13 FG attempts and also failed to convert 4 XP tries.

Michigan State also poses a problem because they are a balanced and all-around good team, as shown by their statistical rankings this season.  The Spartans rank in the top 30 nationally in 11 major statistical categories while the 'Cats rank in the top 30 nationally in just 5 of those categories.  MSU presents a significant challenge for the Wildcats' D as they have a strong running game (26th nationally in rushing offense at over 200 yards per game) with a multi-pronged attack (their top 2 backs have over 500 rushing yards on the year and both average over 6 yards per carry).  And on the other side of the ball, they rank 7th nationally in takeaways while also not yielding many yards (325 per game, 28th nationally) or points (16.6 points per game, 17th nationally).

Northwestern will have to play its best game of the year in all three phases to try and pull off the homecoming upset win, and playing a solid all-around game just hasn't happened yet for the 'Cats against BCS-conference competition in 2010.  The one hope is that the NU coaching staff was able to correct things during the week off and that the Wildcats will be prepared to play a disciplined and well-rounded game this coming Saturday.  NU will have to be on top of its game to have a chance against a formidable and confident opponent.

Opening Line

Michigan State by 7.

Who Should Win

Sparty.  They come in ranking in the top 25 nationally in both scoring offense (34.4 points per game) and scoring defense (16.6 points per game allowed).  It took a fake FG pass to beat Notre Dame in overtime, and MSU had to then overcome the temporary loss of their head coach to a heart attack, but they've been humming since then by knocking off Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, with all three of those wins by comfortable double-digit margins.  With the way they're playing, the only potential road block between them and an undefeated regular season looks to be an Oct. 30 date in Iowa City.

Upset Factor

The question is will Michigan State be overlooking the seemingly overmatched Wildcats?  That trip to Iowa is looming large next week (remember, Iowa beat them on a last second TD pass last year to keep the Hawkeyes' then-perfect regular season intact), and this is by far the furthest MSU has gone into the regular season without a loss in recent history.  Although Coach Dantonio has kept his team focused so far, they're bound for a down game at some point, and why not on their first out-of-state trip of the season.  And while many believe NU has been playing undisciplined football over the past few games, MSU actually has worse penalty numbers than the 'Cats this season, averaging 0.19 more penalties per game and 7.17 more penalty yards per game.  Eventually, that will come back to haunt them much like it did to NU against Purdue.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan State Defense

NU QB Dan Persa will likely continue his amazingly efficient season against MSU (he currently ranks 4th nationally in passing efficiency at 173.3), but the question is, will it be enough for the Wildcats to pull off the upset?  Unless the 'Cats can put together some kind of running threat, look for MSU to do what they did last year against NU where they dropped many defenders into pass coverage and generally bottled up the Wildcat offense (NU scored 14 points and their longest play of the day was a 26 yard pass, despite Mike Kafka airing out the ball 47 times).  Purdue did this relatively often two weeks ago, and it worked out well for them.

Unfortunately, getting that running game going against MSU looks to be a tough proposition, as the Spartans rank 22nd nationally in rushing defense, allowing a hair over 111 yards per game on the ground and giving up just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground.  NU hasn't been able to get much of anything going on the ground so far this year, and MSU is by far the toughest run defense that the 'Cats have seen (the best NU has faced has been Purdue who ranks 33rd nationally and NU had just 84 rushing yards against them).

The best hope that NU has is the fact that MSU seemingly struggled against the most similar offense to Northwestern's spread that they have faced (it took them a fake FG in OT to beat Notre Dame earlier this year in East Lansing).  In that game, ND threw it almost 68% of the time, and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt with 4 passing TDs despite completing under 60% of those passes.  If the Wildcats get the same success through the air coupled with Persa's nation-leading 78% completion percentage, that could indeed spell trouble for Sparty.

It's also worth noting that, while MSU features a stout defense that takes the ball away quite often, they aren't as active in the backfield as one would expect.  The Spartans rank 85th nationally in sacks (1.4 per game) and a disappointing 102nd nationally in tackles for loss (4.4 per game).  This is likely because their best two defenders are LBs Greg Jones and Eric Gordon who just plain take care of business right at the line of scrimmage; they have combined for 106 stops on the year so far.  Not much else needs to be said about Jones: he leads MSU in tackles, solo tackles, TFLs, QB hurries, and forced fumbles, and is clearly in the running for conference defensive player of the year.

Yet another tough spot for NU will likely be the red zone, where MSU ranks 16th nationally allowing opponents to score points in just 74% of trips inside the 20.  The Wildcats have had some well-documented troubles coming away with points in the red zone, ranking 78th nationally by scoring on just 80% of its trips to that area of the field (with at TD score rate of just 60%).

To sum it up, the Northwestern offense will be facing quite a challenge and Persa will have to be near perfect to put the 'Cats in a position to win this game.  Fortunately, Persa has the capability to do that, and the Spartans have been vulnerable to an offensive attack similar to NU's, so there is a chance for Northwestern to succeed.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Michigan State Offense

The Northwestern defense will also have their work cut out for them.  The MSU offense is balanced, averaging 206.1 yards per game on the ground and 241.4 yards per game through the air, which adds up to the nation's 23rd best total offense.  And the Spartans know how to turn those yards into points, ranking 25th nationally in scoring offense, having scored over 30 points in each of their first 6 games, which ended last week against Illinois where they scored "just" 26 (while winning by 20 points).  They are also tied for 18th nationally in red zone offense, scoring on 89% of red zone chances, with a lot of thanks to their kicker who is perfect on the year so far (8 of 27 red zone drives have ended in a successful FG).

Sophomore RB Edwin Baker is good, and so is true freshman Le'veon Bell.  They have combined for a whopping 1,268 yards so far this season along with 14 TDs.  Both average over 6.7 yards per carry on the ground, allowing MSU to put a fresh back in on almost every play.  That's not even considering sophomore Larry Caper (all three are actually listed as co-starters) who has run for 131 yards on the year to go along with 3 TDs (2 rushing, 1 receiving) as he averages a respectable 4.4 yards per carry.  All of that means that opposing defenses must really focus in on the run, leaving room in the secondary for some explosive plays in the passing game.

Junior Kirk Cousins does his job well: hand off the ball a lot, then hit open receivers downfield.  He has completed a respectable 66.3% of his passes on the year and sports an 11:4 TD:INT ratio for this season.  But, it is key to note that he's managed to average 261 yards per game over his last four games despite completing 20 or fewer passes in each of those contests, with a 15.6 yards per completion average over that time.  On the year, MSU has a 14.4 yards per catch average and the Spartans feature 9 different receivers with a yards per reception average over 10.  The WR corps is led by speedsters BJ Cunningham, the aforementioned Keyshawn Martin, and Mark Dell; all three are averaging over 3 catches and 40 yards per game on the season.

Needless to say, the Michigan State offense presents a number of challenges for the Wildcats, especially since NU hasn't been particularly good at shutting any competent offense down this season.  The 'Cats rank 53rd in total defense, giving up 356.8 yards per game, and have allowed 4.4 yards per carry on the ground (they rank a decent 48th nationally in run defense, but some of that has been because of opponents playing from behind for the early part of the season and being forced to pass).  The thing that the NU defense has done the best this season, takeaways (tied for 22nd nationally with 14 on the year), has dropped off considerably the last two games, with the 'Cats grabbing just 2 turnovers in that span after starting off the year with 12 in the first 4 games.

The Wildcat defensive game plan must be to (1) stop the run, hopefully with good inside line play from Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant, and (2) take advantage of ANY mistakes that MSU makes and convert them into takeaways.  Note that the 'Cats did contain the MSU rushing attack last year, holding the MSU RBs to under 4 yards per carry (that included 16 carries from Caper and 12 from Baker).  Northwestern has shown flashes of insipired defensive play this year against lesser competition, and now they'll have to play 60 minutes of lights-out defense against a formidable opponent.  They'll need some luck to go along with two weeks worth of preparation, but like on offense, there is hope that the 'Cats can put themselves in a position to pull off the upset.

What to Look for: Special Teams

First, I would suggest not looking too much at special teams if you are a Wildcat fan.  NU K Stefan Demos' FG/XP issues are well documented.  Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, MSU K Dan Conroy is perfect on the year.  Also mentioned earlier: MSU does quite well for themselves on punt return thanks to Martin.  And while Northwestern has received a nice boost in production from their punter and coverage team, the Spartans' net punting ranks 28th nationally, 8 spots in front of the 'Cats.  To say this all tilts in MSU's favor would be putting it mildly.

Northwestern's biggest advantage in this phase will likely be its ability to pin opponents deep.  Demos is averaging 64.8 yards per kickoff, NU ranks 20th nationally in kick return defense (giving up a 19.1 yard average), while MSU somehow ranks 99th in kickoff returns with an average of just 19.8 yards (Martin returns kickoffs, too, but has been rather ineffective this year on those).  On punts, NU has been respectable and ranks 16th nationally in punt return defense.  The Wildcats will do themselves a big favor by sticking MSU deep to start its drives, which would at least give the defense a fighting chance.

While one hopes that Northwestern will be able to get its return game going, after numerous gaffes against Purdue, a good special teams performance in this game would likely be avoiding costly mistakes.  MSU's Martin did muff a punt last week against Illinois, and NU must hope that the Spartans make more special teams errors in order to gain some kind of momentum in this matchup.

Miscellaneous Notes

Northwestern as Underdogs

This game marks the first time this season that NU has entered the game as an underdog, but that seems to be a preferred role for the 'Cats.  Since the beginning of the 2008 season, Northwestern is 8-4 as an underdog in regular season games.

Third Down Conversions

Northwestern does have a sizable advantage in one area: third down conversions on both sides of the ball.  On offense, NU has converted 50% of its third downs (12th nationally), while MSU has converted just 38.2% (80th).  On defense, the 'Cats have held opponents to a 29.5% conversion rate (10th nationally), while MSU has allowed a respectable but not quite as good 36.6% rate (43rd).  It would behoove the NU defense to put the Spartans into third down situations, while the Wildcat offense should be able to methodically move itself down the field.

Methodical Drives

Speaking of methodical drives, Football Outsiders compiles numerous advanced statistics, and one is a methodical drive rate (percentage of drives with 10 or more plays).  The Wildcats rank first nationally in that category, with 27.3% of their drives lasting 10 plays or longer.  NU also ranks 7th nationally in first down rate, with 81.8% of their drives including at least one first down or touchdown (essentially, non-three-and-outs).  MSU, on the other hand, has relied on the big play, ranking 83rd nationally with just 10.8% methodical drives, but they are a respectable 35th nationally in generating a first down or TD on a drive (72.3%).

When Northwestern Outrushes Opponent

Northwestern has won 11 consecutive games when gaining more rushing yards than its opponent, dating back to the 2008 loss at Indiana where the 'Cats outrushed the Hoosiers 152-72 but lost by 2.  If the Wildcats can somehow find a way to outrush MSU I would fully expect this trend to continue.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, doubtful), CB Jeravin Matthews (leg, doubtful), DE Vince Browne (Ieg, probable).

Northwestern has had some valuable healing time due to their bye, so hopefully some of the guys dinged up during the Purdue game (Browne) and earlier (Matthews) have had time to get back in game shape.  NU missed Browne's presence, in particular, and his pass rushing skills will be needed against a solid QB in this and future weeks.  Matthews is a valuable special teams player due to his speed and ability to make open field tackles and force fumbles.

Michigan State

FB Josh Rouse (neck, out for season), TE Garrett Celek (shoulder, out), CB Chris L. Rucker (suspension, questionable).

Both teams remain relatively healthy and the most significant loss for MSU may be Rucker, who may or may not be back for this game after sitting against Illinois last week.  MSU Coach Dantonio said that he would be suspended "at least one game," and with that game already served he is reserving judgment as to Rucker's return (note that Rucker is not listed on this week's depth chart).  Rucker's backup is true freshman Darqueze Dennard, who held up relatively well last week, but is still inexperienced.


Northwestern 28, Michigan State 27

Yes, you just read that, I predicted Northwestern to pull off the upset and beat an undefeated team ranked 7th in the BCS (I also predicted this game as an NU win in the preseason, so I'll stick with that).  Somehow, Northwestern finds ways to rise to the occasion and pull off upsets like this every year, and MSU is ripe for the picking.  The 'Cats have fortunately had a bye week to correct errors and prepare for the Spartans.  Also, while NU has already learned its lesson regarding penalties, MSU remains an oft-flagged team and that will come back to bite them.  Finally, Coach Fitz knows how to bring his team together to play 60 minutes of football, in spite of slow starts and disappointing losses, and I believe he'll have them focused and ready to play on Saturday.

No matter what the result, I fully expect this to be an interesting and hard-fought game, and Northwestern fans shouldn't write this one off, especially if they've learned anything from what they've seen over the past few seasons.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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