Previewing MSU at Northwestern

Butt - Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

Game time: Noon ET
Location: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TV: ESPN
Radio: Spartan Sports Network
Online Streaming: WatchESPN.com

Game Week Q&A: Here
Forecast: 29 degrees, partly cloudy, 18 mph winds
Line: MSU -7.5

MSU has already clinched a share of the Legends division title. They can clinch a spot in Indianapolis with a win at Northwestern on Saturday (Minnesota kicks off at 3:30).

Northwestern started 4-0, had College Gameday in town and was leading Ohio State after three quarters. The Buckeyes would come back for the win, and Northwestern has lost six straight, some in unbelievable fashion.

In their last three games, the Cats have lost to Iowa in overtime, to Nebraska on a Hail Mary (when leading) and by Michigan in triple overtime. The Wolverines had to convert a fourth down, complete a long pass and rush the field goal unit on the field, JLS-style, and got the kick off as time expired (even if they weren't set), to send it to overtime. Running back Venric Mark is out for the year. It has not been the year Wildcat fans envisioned.

But they still have something to play for. It's senior day, and they can still get to a bowl game by winning out.

A year ago, I wrote this following MSU's loss to Northwestern:

I still contend 2013 will be a very good year, even if Bell, Sims and Gholston all leave early for the NFL. … A ton of talent returns on both sides of the ball, the schedule sets up nicely, and when MSU doesn't get the breaks one year, they usually get them the next.

One win from Indy.

By the numbers

17.6 - Northwestern's points per game on its six-game losing streak.

5.25 -  Northwestern's average margin of defeat in its last four games, the largest being eight points to Michigan in triple overtime.

77.5 - Quarterback Kain Colter's completion percentage this season (62-for-80, 63.4 passing yards per game). Trevor Siemian is completing 57.9 percent of passes on 209 attempts.

4.3 - Yards per rush for Colter (on 113 attempts).

22.7 - Northwestern's points allowed per game in its last four games. (U-M was 9-9 after regulation).

4.0 - Yards per rush allowed by the Wildcats, No. 51 nationally.

+5 - Northwestern's turnover margin, after being +14 a year ago.

4.6 - Yards per rush for Jeremy Langford, No. 6 in the Big Ten.

48.8% - MSU's offensive third down percentage, No. 21 nationally.

6 - Sacks for Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott, No. 5 in the Big Ten. He has 10 tackles for loss.

Three keys for MSU

Run the ball - Jeremy Langford is the first MSU running back to hit 100 yards in five straight Big Ten games since Blake Ezor in 1989. Northwestern's passing game has been decent, and high winds could affect the passing game again.

Avoid big plays on defense - Northwestern has just 39 plays of 20+ yards (No. 91 nationally) and 16 of 30+ yards. Most of Nebraska's scoring came on big plays last week.

Field position - MSU took advantage of some incredible field position last week. On the other side, Nebraska turned it over deep in its own territory because of some terrific punts from Mike Sadler.

Three keys for Northwestern

Turnovers - See: Nebraska. Since Northwestern has been in so many close losses, one turnover (or dropped interception) can be the difference.

Keep the pressure off Colter/Siemian - He hasn't passed very much, but when he has, Colter has been effective. Between Colter and Siemian, Northwestern has thrown 11 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.

Fast start - With it being an 11 a.m. kickoff, MSU has struggled in this situation before in Evanston. The first drive is always the best chance to score on MSU, and Northwestern best take advantage.

Prediction: MSU 24-7

Northwestern is a beat-up team, mentally and physically, but there still is talent on the team, which won at Spartan Stadium last year.

MSU has been rolling, winning all six Big Ten games by at least 12 points. The Northwestern offense has struggled, and I don't see the Wildcats moving the ball much on the MSU defense. On the other side, Northwestern's defense has been surprisingly good in recent weeks. If this game comes down to the end, the Northwestern fans will be wondering how the Wildcats lose in heartbreaking fashion. But I don't think it gets to that point. Langford will continue his solid running, and the passing game will make enough plays for a comfortable MSU win.

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