Game Preview


Michigan State
Ryan Field
Saturday, November 26, 2011.  11:00 am CST
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Michigan State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 3-4) may have reached bowl eligibility last week, but the 'Cats know that they need a win over the No. 14 (BCS) Michigan State Spartans (9-2, 6-1) in order to clinch a bowl bid. The Spartans, meanwhile, officially clinched the Big Ten Legends Division title last week with their win over Indiana and Michigan's victory over Nebraska, meaning that they are headed to Indianapolis to play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game on December 3 no matter what happens in this game. It will be interesting to see how much MSU puts into this game given that fact, though they would certainly like to hold some momentum heading into the title game and would greatly benefit their bowl position with a win if they do end up losing the title game. And, as always, pride is at stake in this intradivisional matchup that will almost certainly be hard-fought as each team's seniors get one last crack at a Big Ten opponent in the final game of the regular season.

The Spartans are in the conference title game for a reason: they are an all-around good football team, but particularly so on defense. They rank first or second in the conference and in the top five nationally in: pass efficiency defense, pass defense, total defense, and scoring defense (while coming in at first in the conference and tenth nationally in rushing defense). They have talent throughout their defense; the line is formidable and has helped them to the 29th most TFLs and 16th most sacks nationally, the linebackers are led by team leader in tackles Max Bullough, and the secondary features playmakers who have accounted for a whopping 14 INTs this season. Northwestern has moved the ball on everyone, including Penn State, whose defense remains one of the top in the conference along with MSU, so they should be able to keep up in this one if they can avoid turnovers.

On the other side of the ball, things will be very interesting. NU's defense has certainly solidified during their active four game winning streak, but they will be facing some dynamic athletes in both the running and passing games. MSU has thrived on explosion plays as they rank just 97th nationally in third down conversions (36.5%) but have managed to average 30.1 points per game. Much of that is thanks to senior QB Kirk Cousins (63.9% completion rate and 19 TDs to just 5 INTs) and his top two targets: BJ Cunningham and Keshawn Martin (who together have accounted for 57.9% of MSU's passing yards, 50% of their receptions, and 55% of their receiving TDs).

It should be an entertaining game that will go a long way in deciding Northwestern's bowl destination as well as the legacy left by this year's seniors led by QB Dan Persa, SB Drake Dunsmore, WR Jeremy Ebert, LT Al Netter, RG Ben Burkett, S Brian Peters, CB Jordan Mabin, and more.

Opening Line

Michigan State by 7.

Who Should Win

Michigan State. Just look at their aforementioned defensive statistics: this team wins games by shutting down the opposition and using some explosion plays from their talented offensive skill players to secure wins. Kirk Cousins is a highly celebrated leader at QB, and they feature a duo of bruising RBs in Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. They can also make hay on special teams, ranking 15th in kickoff returns while their placekicker has hit 82.4% of FG tries for his career. They have already secured the division title and will certainly be seeking momentum heading into the championship game; they've won three straight and are looking to make that four before packing their bags for Indy.

Upset Factor

They've already won the division title and will have much bigger things to play for in one week, so how much effort will they truly be putting into this game? MSU will certainly be trying to protect key personnel to avoid injury before the Big Ten championship game, while also keeping the playbook as closed as possible before the contest that could send them to Pasadena. Northwestern, meanwhile, will certainly be motivated as they need a win to secure a bowl spot, otherwise they'll be left to competing for a lower tier Big Ten bowl slot or at-large bid along with Illinois and Purdue. The NU seniors will be ready to go, and the 'Cats have won seven consecutive Senior Day games dating back to 2004, including all five under Fitz, with those seven victories coming by an average margin of 6.5 points per game.

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

Despite a lackluster performance through the middle two quarters of last week's win over Minnesota, the Wildcat offense continues to impress, ranking second in the Big Ten in total offense (438.5 yards per game) and fourth in scoring offense (30.6 points per game). And NU has continued to excel despite facing some tough competition: three of the 'Cats' opponents rank in the top five of the Big Ten in total defense. And, NU will have to continue playing up to the level of their competition as MSU sports the conference's top total defense (second ranked scoring defense after PSU); as mentioned earlier, the Spartans have defensive weapons at every level and do a good job of getting into the backfield and making plays. They also grab a lot of turnovers, including 16 interceptions (most in the conference).

It will be interesting to see how MSU plays in this game, particularly the defense, given that they have already clinched that spot in the aforementioned conference championship and should be trying to avoid significant injury in this game. Therefore, Northwestern's best bet is to put everything out there and challenge the Spartans early in the game; if the 'Cats gain a significant lead early in the game (see: last year's 17-0 start), then they could force the Spartan coaching staff into benching some of the starters to go for a win next week. Fortunately, NU is pretty good at getting off to a quick start: the 'Cats have outscored opponents by an average score of 18.3 to 11.5 points per game in the first half this season (that's almost a TD differential, by the way).

Michigan State has been very good against the pass so far this year: they have not allowed any team to pass for 300 or more yards this season and have, in fact, held eight of eleven opponents under 200 yards through the air. They're allowing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt, have the aforementioned conference-leading 16 INTs, and have allowed opposing QBs to complete just 49.7% of their passes on the season. And if that's not enough, they are second in the conference in sacks, averaging 2.8 per game. NU's offense is certainly reliant on the pass, and they will have to find a way to counter this, though Dan Persa may follow in the footsteps of some of the better passers that MSU has faced: Wisconsin's Russell Wilson put up 223 yards through the air with a 66.7% completion rate (but did have two costly INTs).

The key will almost definitely be the pressure that MSU can put on Persa when he does throw the football: Northwestern has won every game in which it has allowed two or fewer sacks and lost every game in which it has allowed three or more sacks. The Spartans, meanwhile, have shown that they can handle even the most mobile quarterbacks, racking up their two highest sack totals against Michigan (Denard Robinson) and Ohio State (Braxton Miller). But, MSU does allow points, though, particularly to teams that balance the passing game with a traditional running game: both Wisconsin and Minnesota put up over 400 yards of offense thanks to a significant ground threat. Though the 'Cats don't have a traditional ground attack, they have certainly proven that they can run the ball when they need to by putting Kain Colter behind center and running a variety of different plays (example: the 13-play, all run, game-clinching drive at Nebraska). The Wildcats' best bet is to mix in plenty of Colter and run the ball to keep the Spartans from flat out pass rushing without abandon; another reason to try and take an early lead. Also, with Persa's Achilles' tendon further healed, it may be worth getting some more designed runs called for him as well, just to mix it up.

Northwestern has a number of players to be wary of: LB Max Bullough leads MSU in tackles iwth 72, DE William Gholston is the top lineman with 55 stops and 11 TFLs, DT Jerel Worthy is a plug in the middle of the line with 21 stops 7.5 TFLs, and they have a very solid secondary with DBs Isaiah Lewis, Johnny Adams, Trenton Robinson, and Darqueze Dennard who have combined for 12 of the team's interceptions this season. The 'Cats will have to stay balanced and may very well end up having to "dink and dunk" their way down the field, which MSU has forced NU to do in recent meetings (which in 2009 led to NU WR Zeke Markshausen catching 16 passes, mostly of the short variety). Thankfully, with Persa at the helm NU has been able to do just that and ranks 10th nationally with a 50.0% third down conversion rate, and they'll almost definitely need drive-extending third down conversions in this game: it will be interesting to see how they do facing the Big Ten's best squad at preventing third downs (allowing a conversion rate of just 32.0%).

While NU won't be able to slice up and down the field as easily as in some recent games, NU will be able to move the ball and put up some points on MSU, who just haven't faced many offenses of the caliber of the 'Cats'. The key will be protecting Persa when he does drop back to pass as the number of sacks has been a harbinger of the game's result so far this season for Northwestern. The 'Cats would also behoove themselves of piling on as many points as possible early in the game in order to put MSU on their heels as much as possible and potentially force them to call of the dogs with that title game looming just a week away.

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

The Spartans have certainly been flashy at times this season, and no time more than last week's 55-3 division title-clinching win over Indiana. But, this has been a rather inconsistent unit this season, averaging just 15.8 points per game on the road (compared to 38.3 points per game at home), ranking 12th in the conference in rushing yards per game, and almost completely relying on their top two receivers who have accounted for over 50% of their passing game (in receptions, yards, and receiving TDs). The key for the Northwestern defense in this game will be limiting explosion plays, which plagued the 'Cats earlier in the season but has mostly been contained during their current four-game winning streak: look at plays of 20 or more yards, NU has allowed an average of 3.8 per game in their six wins compared to 5.6 per game in their five losses. MSU has had to live off of the big play: they are dead last in the conference in third down conversion rate at 36.5% but love big plays, mostly passes to WR BJ Cunningham, who averages 16.5 yards per reception.

MSU really does want to be a run-first team, but the fact is that due to some early offensive line injuries and an adjusted lineup there, they haven't really been able to establish that ground game. They are averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry after removing sacks, but on most occasions have not been able to dictate the game through the ground. Le'Veon Bell is their leading rusher with 708 yards and 9 TDs; he averages 5.4 yards per carry. He is often spelled by the team's leader in rushing attempts, Edwin Baker, who comes in at 4.1 yards per carry, 577 yards, and 4 rushing TDs. They will keep both of them in the mix for this game, especially with third string Larry Caper possibly going down with an injury last week. Look out for WR Keshawn Martin on end-arounds or reverses as well (he has 11 carries on the year for 7.9 yards per pop and 2 scores).

In the air, it's all about Cousins to Cunningham and Martin. These are big prototypical receivers who can get open and have great speed. There are other threats, notably converted QB Keith Nichol, but NU would do itself a favor by committing as many resources as possible to stopping the two main guys. Having them both will certainly challenge the cornerback spot opposite Jordan Mabin, which has been somewhat of a revolving door for the 'Cats this year. Northwestern's defensive progress in recent weeks will certainly be put to the test here; NU must have sound coverage by all members of the defensive backfield, otherwise we'll see a repeat of the defense shown during the five game losing streak.

As mentioned earlier, NU does not have to worry about Cousins running the football, unlike its past four opponents, and the 'Cats would be best served by getting some kind of pressure on the QB when dropping back to throw. Of course, that's easier said than done for a team that ranks 88th nationally in sacks and facing an offensive line that ranks 31st nationally in fewest sacks allowed. But, at least the 'Cats don't have to focus on containing a running QB, which they've had to do in at least six of their games this season (not even counting Army, which doesn't run a regular offense), including each of the last four. We'll see how NU's rotation of linemen and linebackers works in this game; NU will have plenty of time to substitute the right packages, as MSU ranks 82nd nationally in adjusted offensive pace (before last week's game).

Hopefully the NU offense can get off to a fast start and help mitigate the MSU running game before it gets started, as the 'Cats cannot afford to let MSU run away with a lead with the potential for big play action off of that. The 'Cats must contain the run while also putting pressure on the QB, and that means that the secondary will have to play some of the best coverage that they've done all year. While inexperience was an excuse earlier in the season, it's certainly no excuse now and let's hope the newly rejuvenated NU D is up to this challenge.

What to Look for: Special Teams

NU's return game finally got a nice boost from Venric Mark against Minnesota, who set up the 'Cats nicely to start off the game with two 40+ yard returns on the Gophers' first two kickoffs. Here's hoping he can do the same as NU will need any help it can get against MSU's tough defense. MSU doesn't have the best coverage teams, ranking 85th in punt return defense and 99th in kickoff return defense, so the opportunity is definitely there. On the flip side, MSU has some solid returners themselves, ranking 15th on kickoff returns and 43rd on punt returns: speedy Keshawn Martin is the guy on punt returns, averaging 9.6 yards per return, while Nick Hill has been doing very well on kickoffs, averaging 26.1 yards per opportunity. NU, though, continues to excel at containing return men, ranking 16th nationally in kickoff return defense and fifth on punt returns (having allowed just 5 punt returns on the year for 3 net yards). One hopes that the differential in coverage teams can help tilt the game in the 'Cats' favor.

In placekicking, NU has mostly avoided FG tries with some significant winds over the last three games; Jeff Budzien's last connection was in the first quarter at Indiana (which was actually the last time that NU trailed during the active four game winning streak). But, Budzien has been Mr. Reliable on extra points, having hit all 46 on the year (and all 47 in his career). MSU's Dan Conroy, meanwhile, has had some uncharacteristic misses this year, hitting just 72.2% of his FGs after making 93.3% of his tries a season ago; his last three misses have been of the long variety, though (49 yards or longer) and he's hit last 12 of 48 yards or less. Once again, hopefully NU will not get into a tight game where it comes down to FGs, as Budzien has yet to fully prove himself there.

Miscellaneous Notes


This game will pit one of the Big Ten's least disciplined teams (MSU, 10th in the conference penalty yards per game at 55.4) against the conference's least penalized team, Northwestern (only 32.3 yards per game in penalties, with zero one week ago). In a close game, penalties could certainly make a difference, and against Michigan the Spartans were quite chippy, accumulating 13 flags for 124 yards.

Bowl Positioning

Although MSU will rightly be trying to win the Big Ten title game in a week, their bowl position if they do not with the championship game will be very much affected by this outcome, as a win here would get them to 10 on the season and make sure that they stay in Florida (either to the Capital One or Outback Bowl) versus falling to the Insight (the furthers the championship game loser is allowed to fall). Northwestern, as stated above, must win here if they want to secure a spot in a Big Ten affiliated bowl; a win would likely mean a trip to Houston for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. A loss would put a lot more up to chance, with NU possibly heading to Detroit but also maybe heading to one of many other potential at-large destinations (New Mexico, San Francisco, Washington DC) depending on which bowls choose which teams and how other teams fare of the final two weeks of the season.

Series History

While NU was somewhat successful against the Spartans through the early part of the 200s (going 4-2 between 2000 and 2007), they have fallen on hard times recently against Mark Dantonio's better teams, losing each of the last three games. NU hasn't won in Evanston since the "Victory Right II" game in 2001, but last year pushed then-undefeated MSU to the edge by taking a 17-0 lead early but then watching as the Spartans scored 21 fourth-quarter points that included a fake punt to set up a touchdown. NU's Jacob Schmidt also experienced a significant setback in that game as he lost a fumble just inches from scoring a TD (when NU was up by 17) and injured his ankle on the same play that would keep him out for the rest of the year. The 'Cats and Schmidt will certainly be seeking revenge in this matchup.

Attendance & More Notes

This Saturday's game will mark the first Northwestern home game after Thanksgiving since 1989 (when NU played Illinois). This will obviously have an effect on attendance as virtually no students will be in town outside of NUMB, who will be playing at the game (which remains Senior Day). After a strong start through three games this year (that included two night games), it has certainly dropped off a bit over the last two games against opponents who don't travel well (and who are having down years), with both games clocking in at under 30,000. It will be very interesting to see the crowd on Saturday, as MSU is unlikely to send many fans given that they've locked up that trip to Indy and will obviously be packing up for that trip on December 3. Hopefully the 'Cats can pull in a respectable number to keep this year's average attendance somewhat close to last year's (NU will not be able to match last year's average attendance even with a sellout on Saturday); if they are around the same number as the last two games (26,000), NU will still top an average of 32,000, which would be the second highest in the Fitz era (after last season's 36,449).

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), DT Brian Arnfelt (doubtful, foot).

Northwestern once again looked as though it avoided significant injury in its last contest and is at one of its healthiest points this season. Hopefully Arnfelt will be ready to go in this game, as his presence in the middle will be needed to help contain the MSU ground game. For the second consecutive week, thankfully, Persa was allowed to finish the game on his own terms and should be ready to give it all for his Ryan Field finale.

Michigan State

DE Tyler Hoover (out for season, back), OL Blake Treadwell (out for season, knee), OL Skyler Burkland (out for season, ankle), NT Antonio Jeremiah (out for season, knee).

MSU experienced some significant issues on their offensive line earlier in the year, leading to some big changes in the OL lineup and some shaky performances near the start (like their 13 point effort against Notre Dame), but they have since come together and now rank 31st nationally in sacks allowed while opening up holes for the running game. Last game, there were some significant players absent (WR Bennie Fowler and DB Darqueze Dennard), but the MSU staff has claimed that they won't hold anyone back from this week's game even with the title game the following Saturday.


Northwestern 28, Michigan State 17

That's right, I'm going to call for the 'Cats to pull off another huge upset, and here are some reason's why:
- Northwestern's offense hasn't really been slowed by anyone, including some of the best defenses in the conference (Penn State, Illinois); NU is averaging 32.7 points per game in Big Ten play.
- MSU has been decidedly lackluster away from home (2-2), especially on offense where they have an aforementioned scoring average of 15.8.
- The Wildcats' defense is playing its best football of the year, showing the progression of a slew of young players, having allowed just 20.5 points per game during their current four game winning streak after allowing 35.2 during NU's five game losing streak.
- NU know how to get off to quick leads, and that will definitely help them here, forcing MSU out of their desired game plan a bit, and maybe even getting the Spartans to call off the dogs and sit some key players (which leads to the last point).
- MSU has almost nothing to play for here. Yes, they'd like to have "momentum" going into the conference title game and would like to reach 10 wins here just in case they don't win the championship, but there is no way that they can remain completely focused on this game with the big one looming just a week away. Even under Dantonio, MSU has been inconsistent and unfocused at times, and this is the perfect chance for that to come back and bite them. Meanwhile, the 'Cats know that they have a lot more to play for and have a bevy of hungry seniors looking to leave their mark on the program; they know that a win here could put them in a somewhat respectable bowl and would help atone for the tough middle portion of the year.

Like they did in their past two home games, the 'Cats will use their quick-strike offense to get up early thanks to QB Dan Persa in his final performance at Ryan Field. He's dealt with a lot of adversity over the last calendar year, and this is a prime opportunity to leave his mark; he'll also be looking for redemption from the last quarter of last year's loss to MSU, where he went 3-of-9 for 35 yards and an INT (after going 15-of-20 for 152 yards with 3 rushing TDs through the first three quarters). This will force MSU away from the ground game, which they desperately want to ride out in this one, and a big enough lead will eventually force them to shift their focus to next week and preserve some of their key players. Also, expect NU to pull out all of the stops in terms of play calling, while MSU must keep its playbook as closed as possible to keep an advantage for the title game.

Michigan State is the better team on the year, but given the situation I'm going to go with the 'Cats. NU could certainly use a win here to help their way to a bowl berth and a W would help wash some of that sour taste out of fans' mouths from the earlier five game slide.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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