Preview: Michigan State vs. Northwestern

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
RYAN FIELD, EVANSTON, ILLINOIS
SATURDAY, 12:00 (ET), ESPN
ONLINE RADIO FEED: WJR
WEATHER: SHOWERS, 61 DEGREES, 60% CHANCE OF RAIN

When the Big Ten Divisions came out a month or two ago, I was greatly pleased to see that Michigan State and Northwestern were both in the same division; partly because Northwestern is always a quality yet not invincible opponent, but also because that means once every two years Michigan State fans get to take one of the best road trips in the conference and head down to Chicago for a weekend of football and debauchery.  This includes myself and six of my friends, who will be in Ryan Field, section 119  tomorrow at 11 A.M. Central Time. What would normally be a cheery trip to Evanston has been made ebullient with a 7-0 Spartan start, and MSU can take a very obvious step to 8-0 by a victory Saturday.

However, a Northwestern team that has given MSU fits in recent history stands in the way.  Last year was a typical hard-fought game, as Northwestern was up 7-0 at halftime. However, the Wildcats were overwhelmed by a barrage of Blair White receptions (12 for 186 yards, two touchdowns), and MSU scored 24 unanswered points on the way to a 24-14 victory.  This season Northwestern is 5-1, fueled by wins over a host of forgettable nonconference opponents (Vanderbilt, Central Michigan, Rice), and a lower-tier Big Ten team (Minnesota).  The one loss came two weeks ago against a hobbled Purdue team, but the Wildcats have had two weeks to put it behind them and prepare for the Spartans.  After the jump, a look at what Michigan State will face on offense and defense, and a few words on home-field advantage.

When Michigan State is on offense...

They'll find the ground game to be particularly effective, which willl be of great importance considering the wet weather that could be in full effect during the match.  Northwestern is currently yielding 4.4 yards per rush, which ranks about 80th (sorry I couldn't get it exact, but counting is hard) 78th (HT: CPT Hoolie) in the FBS.  That's a ray of hope for Edwin Baker, Larry Caper, and Le'Veon Bell, all of whom were stifled to some degree against an aggressive Illini defense last week.  The Wildcats are ranked 36th in the country in tackles for a loss per game (6.83) however, so they have a few playmakers who can stop the run. Northwestern allowed Purdue, the only team the Wildcats have faced with a rushing offense in the top half of the FBS (27th), to go for 5.5 yards per carry.  I hate to use the phrase "run at will", but the Spartans should be able to get several first downs on the ground.

The statistics of Northwestern's pass defense are divergent.  They have allowed 216.33 passing yards per game (71st in the BCS), but have the 24th ranked pass efficiency defense.  This is very much like the same situation MSU was in during the nonconference schedule -- a defense that looked mediocre from a  yardage perspective, but is actually quite efficient once the amount of passing attempts are factored in.  The pass defense has also been quite opportunistic, with eight different defenders recording interceptions for a total of ten picks on the season.  If Kirk Cousins is pressured (he will be, but sporadically - the Wildcat defense ranks 78th in sacks with 1.67 per game), he could have one or two passes caught by players not technically on the same team as him.  With the rain predicted for tomorrow, if Cousins attempts more than 20 passes something has gone terribly wrong. Expect many of those passes to be of the Keshawn Martin bubble screen variety as well, because they're safe and good for at least 6 yards 75% of the time.

When Michigan State is on defense...

They'll see a game reminiscent to the Michigan game, except in reverse at the quarterback position.  Dan Persa is the bizarro Denard Robinson, in that his passing is the forte of his game while his running leaves something to be desired.  Persa currently ranks fourth in the FBS in passer rating, while lacking a decent yards per carry; it's 4.4 before lost yards are factored in, and drops to 3.4 when lost yards are included in the average.  Regardless, if Persa attempts a pass, it'll most likely be completed.  His completion percentage of 78.0% leads all FBS passers with more than 50 attempts, and unlike his predecessors at Northwestern, these passes are going for a decent amount of yardage.  Persa ranks 9th in yards per attempt; this would look impressive in the Big Ten if Cousins and Ricky Stanzi weren't ranked above him in this statistic.

Persa's two main receiving threats are junior receiver Jeremy Ebert and junior tight end Drake Dunsmore.  Ebert has been the Wildcats' leading receiver on the season, catching 35 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns.  Dunsmore is second on the team in receptions with 22 for 231 yards and three touchdowns.  The two juniors are Northwestern's biggest threats, as they've caught eight of the ten Wildcat passing touchdowns on the year. The running theme through this preview though has been the likelihood of rain during the game tomorrow, and it's a stretch to believe the Wildcat passing attack will be as efficient as it's been in previous games (66.3% of Northwestern's yards have come through the air) if the ball is wet.

Lastly, the running attack - it's not good.  Persa leads the team in yards, and the three other backs who have gotten more than 40 carries (Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt, and Mike Trumpy) have these numbers for yards per carry respectively: 2.9, 3.4, and 3.4.  In this space I'd say something specific about the linebackers having to penetrate the gaps or the defensive linemen having to beat back double teams, but I'm pretty sure saying "KEEP PLAYING RUN DEFENSE LIKE USUAL" will suffice here. Luckily for MSU, despite the superiorty of the passing game, Northwestern has attempted runs on 60% of their plays.  Go figure.

Special Teams and Intangibles

Northwestern's kicker, Stefan Demos, is a quandary.  He's missed more extra points (three) than he has field goals from inside the 40 (one) this year.  Demos has also gone 1-6 for field goals of more than 40 yards, making him consistent from 40 yards in, unless he's kicking extra points.  Weird.  Their punter, Brandon Williams, averages 40.3 yards a punt ranking 66th in the FBS.  Their punt and kick returners (Hunter Bates and Stephen Simmons respectively) rank out of the top 60 in return yard average.  As you can ascertain, the Northwestern special teams have been less than special.

A  final word regarding home field advantage - It's only home field advantage if the presence is intimidating.  Since Michigan State fans could very well outnumber Northwestern fans in the stands, the only way the Wildcats stand to gain an advantage is if the Spartans are so discombobulated by the COMPLETELY FOREIGN CUSTOMS AND CULTURES OF EVANSTON, ILLINOIS that it causes them to lose focus.  From what I've seen out of this Spartan team however, I don't think that'll happen.

FINAL ANALYSIS AND PREDICTION

The forecast of rain for tomorrow, as I've said ad nauseam in this preview, will be a tremendous boon for MSU and a bugaboo for Northwestern - even the preternaturally accurate Dan Persa will have trouble completing some passes if the ball is slick.  However, the MSU running backs will have to stay as fumble-free as they have been in the past two games to limit turnovers - not many teams can come back from a negative turnover margin on the road.  I think Pat Fitzgerald will still run the ball 60% of the time; this will play exactly into the Spartans' hand. 

Lastly, to everyone going out to the game tomorrow, here's to riding the Purple Line up to Evanston and enjoying an opportunity that comes along biennially.  I'll be there with my friends A+RM, CS, PK, RS, and CL.  Hopefully you and your friends as well will get to enjoy a beautiful day for football.

FINAL SCORE: MICHIGAN STATE 24, NORTHWESTERN 10

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