What to watch for when Northwestern takes on Michigan State
    Northwestern takes on Michigan State this Saturday in a matchup critical to bowl positioning. Photo by Daniel Schuleman / North By Northwestern

    Michigan State University won the Big Ten Legends Division in 2011, but has suffered through a surprising down year, losing five games, four of which have been at home. They are now simply fighting for bowl eligibility.

    The Spartans could guarantee that bowl berth with a win in East Lansing on Saturday against Northwestern, who will be attempting to rebound from its most traumatic defeat of the season last Saturday against University of Michigan. Here are four themes to note before watching this weekend’s showdown.

    Northwestern vs. the bye week

    Sparty is coming off a bye week, which makes them the fifth team with an extra week off to prepare for the Wildcats. The ‘Cats showed last week what added preparation time could mean, when they came off of their own bye week advantage and nearly knocked off Michigan at The Big House.

    But Northwestern is 3-1 thus far in those matchups, defeating the University of South Dakota, Indiana and Minnesota, but dropping their game to Nebraska. All things considered, Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have been well equipped to deal with this scheduling disadvantage.

    Star running backs

    It was announced on Tuesday that Venric Mark will play this weekend after getting slammed hard to the ground in overtime against Michigan. This sets up a matchup between two of the best running backs in college football.

    Mark’s counterpart, Michigan State junior running back Le'Veon Bell, came into the 2012 season with much higher expectations than Mark – and sure is living up to them. Bell was highlighted on the national player of the year preseason watch list and has followed up by leading the conference in yards from scrimmage (1,394) - a combination of rushing and receiving yards.

    Mark entered the season with no national fanfare while switching from wide receiver to running back at the start of the season, yet he leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (1,912), which combines rushing, receiving, kick return and punt return yardage. That number puts him fourth overall in the country and shows he has been one of the most dynamic players in the nation.

    At 6-foot-2 inches and 237 pounds, Bell’s bruising running style couldn’t be more different from speedy Mark, who is 5-foot-8 on a tall day and 175 pounds. But size is not the only area in which Bell and Mark have differed this season.

    Michigan State’s rushing attack ranks eighth in the Big Ten, although it is no fault of Bell’s. He has been the team’s workhorse, accounting for over 77 percent of the team’s total carries and 88 percent of their rushing yards. Bell said this week he would consider leaving college early to enter the NFL Draft. With a team that seems perfectly willing to run him into the ground, who could blame him?

    In contrast, Mark makes up for less than 50 percent of Northwestern’s rushing yards. He has almost 100 fewer rushing yards than Bell but it has taken him nearly 100 fewer carries to do so. Northwestern has both Kain Colter and Mike Trumpy as second and third options to Mark, while Michigan State’s offense is dependent on Bell.

    These two are clearly the class of the country. Each are two of the 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, which is annually awarded to the best running back in college football.

    Who will collapse first?

    If Northwestern students did not know entering the Michigan game last Saturday, they surely know by now that the Wildcats have this irritating little habit of building double-digit second-half leads and miraculously blowing them.

    Northwestern built up a 28-17 fourth quarter lead against Penn State on Oct. 6, only to allow 22 unanswered points for their first loss of the season. Two weeks later, they went up 28-16 to Nebraska with 8:31 remaining but allowed Nebraska to march the length of the field twice in less than five minutes to lose. And on Saturday, Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree’s catch in the final seconds completed Northwestern’s most epic debacle of the season.

    The good news for the Wildcats is that Michigan State has been similarly dysfunctional when playing with a lead. Four of five losses for the Spartans have come by a combined 10 points, and they had second half leads in each of those games.

    There is a foreseeable 0-0 fourth quarter scenario for this game, as both teams perhaps will be hesitant to take the lead.

    Bowl ramifications

    Based on the most recent projections, Northwestern is slated to go to the Gator Bowl, while Michigan State would wind up at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the tastiest of the all the bowls. The Gator Bowl is a more prestigious bowl but a recent Florida Times-Union article said Northwestern was an unlikely choice because they are a smaller private school. If the Wildcats drop this game to Michigan State, with 35,000-plus undergraduates, the two schools might flip-flop their bowl positioning.

    For fans looking to travel to this season’s bowl game, this game could mean the difference from making your New Years’ plans in Tempe, Ariz. or Jacksonville, Fla.


    If Northwestern hold Le’Veon Bell to under 100 yards, they will win. Michigan State has no backup plan on offense. Spartan quarterback Andrew Maxwell is the eighth highest rated passer in the conference. But as good as Northwestern’s rushing defense has been this season, Bell will be the best back they have faced all season.

    While both Colter and Mark should play after getting banged up last weekend, it remains questionable how effective each will be against the typically staunch Spartan defense. And it is difficult to see how this team will not have a letdown after getting their hearts yanked out of their chests on national television a week ago.

    Michigan State 24, Northwestern 21


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