Coming into this Saturday’s homecoming game against the seventh-ranked Michigan State Spartans, it’s hard not to lament what could have been. A better day from Stefan Demos, or Hunter Bates, or one more clutch red zone stop by the defense, and this would be a marquee matchup of the Big Ten conference’s last two unbeaten teams.
Instead, we see a Spartan team that has overachieved in nearly every respect coming into Evanston to face a team that, despite a solid 5-1 record, has for the most part underwhelmed. The Spartans are dreaming of roses while the Wildcats will have to play great football just to match last year’s Outback Bowl berth. But within this bleak outlook lies Northwestern’s hope: they have yet to peak as a team, and these circumstances could very well be exactly what they need.
The matchup Saturday is the definition of a trap game for MSU: with a showdown against Iowa looming the following week as the last major barrier between them and an undefeated season, if these Wildcats finally play up to their potential then Sparty is in for quite the surprise.
Northwestern Offense vs. Michigan State Defense
The Michigan State defense is without a doubt the most ferocious defense the Wildcats have faced this season, but there are certainly holes to be exploited. In particular, Northwestern will have to target the secondary, which has allowed 213 yards per game through the air so far this year, a solid number to be sure but not nearly as strong as their rush defense. If Northwestern is going to win Saturday, it must be on the strength of Dan Persa’s arm and Jeremy Ebert’s dynamic routes. Anything south of 50 pass attempts and the Wildcats will be leaving unhappy. Persa’s turnover stinginess must continue as well; while MSU’s pass defense can give up some yardage, they also have more than their fair share of playmakers. Watch out for junior safety Trenton Robinson, senior safety Marcus Hyde and sophomore cornerback Johnny Adams, who share eight interceptions between the three of them.
So why exactly should we give up on the running game? If the 2 yards per carry average against a meager Purdue defense last game wasn’t enough reason, then the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, senior linebacker Greg Jones, should do it. His 60 total tackles (5-for-loss) leads the team, and his two interceptions add to his gaudy numbers. The ‘Cats did a good job of containing Purdue’s standout defensive end Ryan Kerrigan last week, and must do more of the same with Jones. If by focusing on Jones the Wildcats overlook fifth-year senior linebacker Eric Gordon (whose 285 career tackles are second only to Jones in the conference) then Dan Persa will find himself dusting himself off after more than a few big hits.
Northwestern Defense vs. Michigan State Offense
Continuing the now-familiar theme, this Michigan State offense is much more balanced than any prior opponent the ‘Cats have faced (or are likely to face). Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins sports a near Persan 163.4 passer rating with 9.6 yards per attempt, proof that the Spartans really know how to air the ball out. As the Purdue loss showed us, however, a complete shut-down of the passing game is not enough to ensure Northwestern victory.
The rushing attack is, if possible, even more dangerous than the MSU passing game. The two-headed monster of sophomore Edwin Baker and true Freshman Le’Veon Bell (with Baker clocking in at 5’9 and Bell at 6’2 they offer genuine change-ups from one another) have helped MSU average 206 rushing yards per game so far. This will be the ultimate test for seniors Quentin Davie and Corbin Bryant; in particular Davie’s linebacking corps, billed as the defense’s strongest unit going into the year, will its hands full against the Spartan ground game.
Will Saturday afternoon be the occasion of Stefan Demos’ redemption? Perhaps a bye week and a healthy dose of campus scorn has been the antidote for Demos’ poor play. On the other side of the field, however, MSU’s Dan Conroy has been the model of consistency: 28 for 28 on points-after-touchdown and 13 of 13 on field goals. If this game comes down to a last-minute field goal either way, advantage: Sparty.
The punting game is more of a toss-up; MSU’s Aaron Bates has our Brandon Williams beat on average punt length (45.5 to 40.3 yards) but Williams’ 11 punts downed inside the 20 yard line nearly double Bates’ 6. In the return game, Keshawn Martin represents a genuine threat at all times to break a game-changing run off a kick. On our side of the ball, the Wildcats have to at least protect the ball, if not break a return or two of their own to keep the team in the game. A return game that has exhibited little dynamism so far would give the team a well-needed shot in the arm with a big run or two (in particular Hunter Bates could use the bounce-back).
It’s hard to say what Northwestern team shows up on Saturday. If it’s anything akin to the team that lost to Purdue, played Minnesota down to the wire and needed an onside-kick recovery to beat Central Michigan, then we will get run out of our own building. But let’s say Coach Fitzgerald’s team embraces its strengths and finally unleashes Persa to the extent that most Wildcat fans have been begging for him to be used for a few weeks now; let’s say the senior leaders on the defense step up and stop a vicious MSU rush attack; and let’s say that the plot of this football season turns Disney-movie sappy and Stefan Demos finally finds himself. Do we win that game? Hell yes we do!
And you know what? I believe in Fitz. 35-31 Wildcats.