Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, Oct. 11.  2:30 pm CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. MSU
by Jonathan Hodges


This Saturday presents one of the biggest game in recent Northwestern history as the # --/22/23 Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) take on the #23/19/21 Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) at 2:30PM CT in Evanston (televised on ESPN2) in a matchup that will help determine which team will be a conference contender as the season hits its midpoint.  This is the first time that NU, as a ranked team, will take on another ranked team since the game against Michigan during 2005 in Evanston.  There is also a grassroots effort by Northwestern students to make this game a "Purple Haze" day, in other words, to fill the stands with fans clad in purple; in any case, this game is a big one for both teams and one that should garner some national attention with the winner proving themselves as a contender in the Big Ten this season.

The most recent win for both teams is a single digit victory over Iowa; NU won in Iowa City two weeks ago by 5 and is coming off of a bye week, while MSU is coming off of a 3 point win over the Hawkeyes last week in East Lansing.  Both games were relatively low scoring affairs and came down to a late game drive by Iowa to try and come away with the win, but both the Wildcats' and Spartans' defenses held on fourth down to seal the respective wins.  Outside of the wins over Iowa, neither team has beaten a "legitimate" team; MSU's toughest game turned out to be a loss at California, but they have bounced back and are riding a 5 game winning streak (the best win outside of Iowa probably being over Notre Dame).  Northwestern, meanwhile, is riding a 5 game winning streak of their own with the best win (again, outside of Iowa) probably being over Duke.  Both teams have played good defense this season; NU has allowed opponents an average of only 12.4 ppg (13th nationally) while MSU has allowed 16.2 ppg (22nd nationally).  And while neither team has lit things up on offense, they have both done enough to win games: MSU boasts RB Ringer who ranks second nationally in rushing yards per game (164.7 ypg rushing), while NU features QB CJ Bacher who is coming off of a 3 TD performance against Iowa along with NU's own Tyrell Sutton who is averaging 92.8 ypg on the ground plus another 31.2 ypg in receiving yards.

This game looks to be a good one from all aspects: both teams are having a hot start and are yearning to prove themselves in a significant matchup, both teams have solid offensive weapons, both teams have been executing well on special teams, and both teams have fielded very good defenses thus far.  The matchup looks very even and will likely yield a close game.  In this series, recent years have featured some exciting games: in 2005 NU grabbed one of its biggest victories in recent years with a 49-14 win in East Lansing; in 2006, the 'Cats went up 38-3 in the 3rd quarter only to watch it all evaporate as MSU staged the biggest comeback in Div. I (FBS) history to win 41-38; and last year, NU won 48-41 (OT) in what was an exciting game until the very end.  And since 1995, the series has been rather evenly matched, as NU has a 5-4 edge.  It is set up to be quite a football game.

Michigan State by 3.

Who Should Win: Toss-up.  While MSU is favored by 3, they have shown weakenesses (their passing game and defense, at times) and must travel to NU, who have won the last 2 of 3 in the series (and should have won the other if not for an epic collapse).  The teams seem to be very evenly matched: some solid offensive weapons and very good defenses that have held opponents at bay thus far.  Both teams also have solid head coaches who are still young in their respective positions and are defensive-minded and have translated that mindset on the field this season.  If MSU can get Ringer running the way he has earlier in the year (with 2 straight and just 2 yards short of 3 straight 200+ yard rushing games) and the defense holds then they have a good chance of winning; meanwhile, if the NU defense can force turnovers like it has the past 2 games and the offense gets rolling like they did late against Iowa, then NU should have the edge.  I expect something in between and a game decided by a play or two late in the game.

Upset Factor:  With no team definitively on top it's diffcult to spell out an upset factor.  But, a key swinging point to this game will be turnovers - if the 'Cats can force them like they have the past 2 games (9 total), they can take the edge.  Meanwhile, if MSU can force them (they have a turnover margin of +1.2 per game so far) they can let their running game take care of business.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Michigan State Defense: The 'Cats will be looking to establish some offensive rhythm like they began to do against Iowa, but will also be looking to improve on their red zone scoring ability - NU came into the Iowa game perfect in the red zone but came out with two missed chances and converted for a TD on only 3 out of 6 trips.  Tyrell Sutton should be healthier after a bye week and another week of time to heal from his hamstring issue suffered against Ohio; despite the injury he carried the ball 24 times against Iowa and caught 6 balls for a combined 149 yards from scrimmage.  CJ Bacher turned things around from a 4 INT game against Ohio to pass for 284 yards and 3 TDs against the Hawkeyes in a solid comeback performance as he took away Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.  And both Peterman (2 TDs) and Ward (1 TD, 94 yards) had good performances and look to lead the receiving corps to a good game.  Overall, it looks like the offense is beginning to come together after a less-than-stellar start to the year, and the bye week should have helped in that regard as well.  Also, don't leave out the OL, who is 5th in the nation in sacks allowed, with 0.40/game.  And this is the team that put up 48 points on MSU last season as CJ had a career day with 520 passing yards and 5 TDs (all without Sutton available).  But, don't overlook MSU's strong defense, who feature DE Trevor Anderson (averaging 0.83 sacks/game and 1.08 TFL/game), SS Wiley (7th nationally with 0.7 INT/game), and LB Jones who secures the middle of the field.  They field a strong unit that can capitalize on mistakes, and has shown that by gaining 13 turnovers so far this season (2.2/game).  While the Spartans' defense is good, they have also shown weakness - allowing 38 points to Cal and 29 points to Indiana, and were saved in the game against the Hoosiers by a holding call in the end zone that called back a 96 yard TD reception by Indiana.  In terms of yards, they are a middle of the road defense, but keep teams off the board thanks to gaining those turnovers and making things happen in the backfield (see the TFL to end Iowa's chances last week).  This should be an interesting matchup as NU will need to move the ball well (meaning Sutton getting 20+ touches again) and then convert in the red zone (which they had some issues with last week) as MSU hopes to rebound from last year's poor showing against the 'Cats.

Northwestern Defense/Michigan State Offense: Northwestern's defense has been excellent thus far, as the 'Cats are 13th nationally in scoring defense, and are 3rd in sacks (3.4/game) and 9th in TFLs (8.2/game) as the Hankwitz attacking D mentality has been taken up by this unit.  While NU is also a middle of the road defense in terms of yards, they stiffen up in the red zone and either come away with a turnover (they have 11 turnovers gained themselves, or 2.2/game) or come up with a stop (opponents are 62.5% for scoring in the red zone and only 37.5% for TD conversions).  Also, on 3rd downs, NU ranks 12th nationally, alowing a conversion only 28.6% of the time.  While the D has held up rather well so far this season, things may become a bit more difficult as RB Javon Ringer comes to town sporting 988 rushing yards on the season (4.7 ypc) and 12 TDs on the ground.  He is averaging OVER 35 rushing attempts per game and went over 30 carries for 4 straight games earlier in the year.  There is no doubt that he is the main cog in the Spartan offensive attack.  And if NU sells out completely on the run, MSU has a couple of weapons on the outside that can make teams pay in speedy sophomore WR Mark Dell and freshman WR BJ Cunningham.  While QB Hoyer hasn't had a great year (47.7% completion rate, 4 TDs/3 INTs), he is a senior and will be able to find open targets down the field if NU's safties bite on play action.  Northwestern's defense showed it was vulnerable to a traditional offensive set against Iowa, who gained over 400 yards and saw their RB (Greene) gain 159 yards on the 'Cats (7.6 ypc) before being knocked out.  The 'Cats' saving grace was turnovers (they nabbed 5 on that day), but that will be rather difficult against MSU who have fumbled only 3 times on the year and given up the ball on average only one time per game in 2008.  While focusing in on the run, NU also had trouble against the passing game with Iowa converting 21 of 30 attempts (which increases, on a percentage basis, to 21 of 26 not counting the 4 incompletions to conclude the game), especially when a TE came across the field.  While the NU defense has been very good at making things happen in the backfield they come up against a solid OL who ranks ahead of NU's at 4th nationally in sacks allowed (0.33/game) and an RB (Ringer) who doesn't go down easily.  It will be a challenge for NU's defensive front to account for Ringer and then get after Hoyer if it turns out to be a passing play, although look for NU to have the best success if they force Hoyer to throw the ball.  Last season, Ringer torched NU's defense for 185 yards on only 12 carries (a staggering 15.4 ypc), 3 TDs, and 6 receptions for 54 yards.  Look for the NU defense to once again work to prove itself against a substantial running threat - and don't discount an extra week of preparation for NU's primary defensive mind, DC Hankwitz, who is excellent at game-planning.

Special Teams: Both teams have featured steady special teams play and each have seen their FG kicker garner Big Ten player of the week honors this season.  NU has Villarreal, who was perfect on the year going into Iowa (8/8 FGs, 11/11 XPs) but against Iowa had a FG blocked, and missed both a FG and XP (he did make one FG and one XP on the day).  But, on the season, he remains a consistent force, and has helped NU convert red zone trips into points on many occasions.  MSU has Brett Swenson, who has gone 19/19 on XPs and 12/13 on FGs so far this season, and made 4 in their win over Indiana, with 3 of those over 40 yards in distance.  Neither team has put up numbers in the return game so far, but both teams present a threat: MSU still puts Ringer back to return kickoffs and has star safety Wiley returning punts; NU has been improving little by little on both kickoff returns and punt returns (McManis is slated to be back on kickoffs again after receiving a break the past couple games).  In terms of kickoff coverage teams, though, while NU has been impressive in kickoff return yards allowed (7th nationally at 16.35 yards/return), MSU has not had as much success, yielding 23.75 yards/return (98th nationally); so, the chance is there for NU to make something happen on kickoffs and give themselves good field position.  In the punting game, while neither team is particularly impressive in punting yards, they both get down the field and make tackles (they are ranked 46th and 47th nationally in punt return yards allowed, with NU in the higher spot).  While both teams have exectued well in special teams thus far, the performance in this area will potentially be amplified in a close, evenly matched game with a gaffe or great play in this area making the difference in the game - last year, NU had multiple chances to pull out the win in regulation but a bad snap on a FG try forced NU to pass (it was an incompletion) and a final second FG attempt to win the game was no good (fortunately, the 'Cats pulled out the win in OT).

- Northwestern's 2-deep had only minor changes following the bye week: McManis is back in at kickoff return duty (with Conteh listed as #2), Mattes has reappeared as backup to Taylor at RT, and Bartels seems to have secured his spot at RG (Belding is listed as the backup).
- NU doesn't have to feel too bad about letting Iowa's RB Greene run wild on them two weeks ago, he almost equaled his rushing yardage against MSU last week (he had 159 yards against NU and 157 against MSU).
- Attendance: as noted in this week's commentary, attendance at Ryan Field will be vital on Saturday; NU has averaged only 20,382 in 3 games so far this season.  Fortunately, NU will be boosted by a relatively close Big Ten opponent and a later (2:30PM) kickoff time.
- NU has yielded only 2 passing TDs on the year, although those came in the past 2 consecutive games.
- Penalties: again, how much meaning this has is up to debate, but NU and MSU are close in terms of penalties per game; NU is averaging 5.4/game for 52 ypg, while MSU is averaging 5.2/game for 50.3 ypg.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), RB Simmons (questionable, ankle), OL Grant (out, ankle), WR Brewer (questionable, foot), OL Mattes (questionable, knee), LB McNaul (out, leg), LB Jeske (out, undisclosed), WR Frymire (out, leg).

Michigan State: S Wiley (questionable, leg), WR Dell (questionable, leg), TE Gantt (questionable, undisclosed), CB Weaver (probable, illness), CB Rucker (doubtful, arm), S Davis-Clark (probable, shoulder), OL Ray Jr. (out for season, leg), LB Misch (probable, foot).

The biggest change in status for Northwestern are that Mattes is back on the 2-deep as the backup RT (behind Taylor, who has been performing quite well thus far) and looks to be available after missing a few weeks due to a knee injury; Fitz indicated that he should be fully available.  Also note that before the Iowa game it was disclosed that third-string senior LB Rejae Johnson will be out for the year with a shoulder injury; it's disappointing to see a senior with so much time invested in the program go down.  Simmons has been held out since going down in the SIU game and he should be available as well, according to Fitz (although he does not appear on the 2-deep at his usual kickoff return position).  After missing much of the season, both Grant and Brewer have been running well, according to reports, and they may be available for the game as well.  While Sutton apparently wasn't at full speed against Iowa, he still ganed 149 yards from scrimmage and should be quicker after an off week; Bacher looked good and his fingers should be fully healed.

On MSU's side, some significant names appear on their injury list (Wiley, Dell), but don't expect them to be held out in such a big game.  Not having Wiley or Dell in the game would be significant for the Spartans, so watch to see if they are in the game early on.  In fact, MSU's secondary in the second half against Iowa featured zero players who started the first game of the season.  They should get a couple of players back from injury, but nothing is for sure until game time - this is definitely an area for NU to circle in order to exploit.  But, as long as Ringer is in the game, NU can't take anything for granted - and the one thing he has shown this season is durability.

Prediction: Northwestern 35 - Michigan State 31

After (fortunately) being incorrect in my predicted 'Cats loss last game, I will go against my preseason prediction this week and call for an NU win.  This game is rather evenly matched and, while both teams are riding a wave of momentum, NU has had a chance to get healthy (Fitz noted that NU is as healthy as its ever been after 5 games) with a bye week while MSU saw a couple of key cogs (2 in the defensive secondary, in particular) go down and they may miss time.  Also, don't discount home field advantage as well as the chance for this 'Cats team to prove its legitimacy with a significant audience watching (in the stands and on TV).

While both defenses have done rather well so far in 2008, MSU's has been suspect against opponents with a good offense (Cal and Indiana), and this is the perfect chance for NU's offensive unit to get things going (remember that NU scored more than 40 points for the first time in almost 2 years last year after some unimpressive offensive performances earlier in the season).  On the other hand, while NU's defense has performed well, they showed weakness against the run in Iowa and Ringer is one of the best backs in the nation and MSU will undoubtedly get him the football.  Therefore, I expect a higher scoring game, although the performance of both defenses will determine the outcome of the game (which may come down to the final series and/or play, like both NU and MSU's games against Iowa the past 2 weeks).

But with some weaknesses and injuries apparent in MSU's defense, Sutton back to full health and available for the game, and the defense's newfound identity, I expect a Northwestern victory here that would propel the 'Cats to a high-profile win that should propel them to their highest ranking since 2000.  But, as Fitz would say, take things one game at a time and one play at a time - and while NU fans should and will be excited for this matchup, the team must remain focused on the task at hand, which is a very challenging matchup against another team riding a wave of enthusiasm.  Also, don't expect MSU to be looking ahead to their battle against Ohio State the following week; they have seen first hand NU's abilities on the field.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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