The end result has been the same every time, but during Northwestern’s six-game losing streak, everything besides the result has been unpredictable.
A half-dozen games, a half-dozen unique ways of losing. Whether it’s an inexplicable late penalty, a Hail Mary or last-week’s desperation field goal, the Wildcats keep finding new and exciting ways to give games away.
Now, they face Michigan State at Ryan Field on Saturday. MSU sits at 9-1 with an unblemished 6-0 Big Ten record. It looks to be a cold affair, with predicted temperatures near 30 degrees and winds around 20 miles per hour.
As a team that’s used to this kind of weather, it could be one of Northwestern’s very few advantages.
“I sure hope so,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Wednesday’s practice. “We could use something.”
Scouting the Michigan State offense
While the Spartans have definitely been lauded for their defense under head coach Mark Dantonio, the inconsistent offense has hit its stride lately. Over the last three games, MSU averages over 35 points per game, a mark it hit just twice prior to this stretch.
Quarterback Connor Cook, who struggled early on, has come along over this last three-game stretch, throwing for five touchdowns and one interception. Running back Jeremy Langford has been on fire as well. The junior has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last five games.
MSU doesn't break off many huge plays, but Cook and Co. move the ball steadily and convert on third downs at a 49.1 percent clip. In recent weeks, they've begun to possess the ball at a really high rate and give their defense a lot more rest than they had early on.
The Spartans also do a great job of protecting the ball, having turned the ball over only seven times on offense this season. For a Northwestern team that has thrived on taking the ball away, this is a little concerning.
Stopping the Michigan State offense will be a stiff challenge for the Wildcats, who allowed just nine points in regulation against Michigan.
Scouting the Michigan State defense
This unit has been nothing short of astounding. MSU is first in the nation in total defense and beats out the next closest team by over 10 yards. The Spartans have only allowed 20 points twice this season, while they have held opponents to single digits four times.
Fitzgerald, like most, is very impressed by the defense.
[Defensive coordinator Pat] Narduzzi and his group do a great job schematically, and the guys know what they’re doing,” Fitzgerald said. “They are an experienced, experienced group, and to see the way they play together is really impressive.”
Northwestern’s offense has already been struggling mightily, and having to go against Michigan State just seems cruel. The Spartan-run defense is absolutely ruthless. Everyone packs the box and is a threat to get into the backfield. The defensive backs rarely line up farther than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage unless it's a clear passing down.
In short, it will likely be a rough day for the oft-criticized Northwestern offensive line.
Northwestern has to win this game to stay bowl-eligible, and the ‘Cats definitely won’t have many believers. It’s 6-0 in conference vs. 0-6 in conference. The answer seems obvious.
Even so, the players have been upbeat. Many are playing their last game ever at Ryan Field, and they still believe that they can go out on a positive note. The ‘Cats will need to severely overachieve to challenge MSU.
With the offense that Northwestern fields and the defense that the Spartans will play, it seems like the chances are slim of the Wildcats putting up even double digits, but who knows? They’ve made games exciting this year, and this could be another example.