The Spartans are back in action after a extra week to let the last-second loss to Nebraska sink in. At 5-5, MSU is still trying to reach bowl eligibility, and the MSU seniors will play in their final game at Spartan Stadium. This game could very well determine who earns the Big Ten's bid to the Gator Bowl.
Northwestern's season to date: 7-3 (3-3) - W 42-41 at Syracuse, W 23-13 vs. Vanderbilt, W 22-13 vs. Boston College, W 38-7 vs South Dakota, W 44-29 vs. Indiana, L 39-28 at Penn State, W 21-13 @Minnesota, L 29-28 vs. Nebraska, W 28-17 vs. Iowa, L 38-31 at Michigan.
By the numbers:
238.6: Rushing yards per game for Northwestern, which is third in the Big Ten.
8: Rushes of 40+ yards by Northwestern running back Venric Mark, which is sixth in the nation.
164.9: Passing yards per game for the Wildcats, which is last in the Big Ten.
273.8: Passing yards per game allowed by Northwestern's defense, which is last in the Big Ten.
2-1: MSU's record after a bye week under Mark Dantonio.
205: Rushing yards for Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez against MSU two weeks ago.
111.12: Andrew Maxwell's quarterback rating this season, which is No. 98 in the nation.
188: Rushing yards for Le'Veon Bell against Nebraska. His 124.9 yards per game for leads the Big Ten.
3: Interceptions thrown by Northwestern quarterbacks, which is the fewest in the Big Ten (they're seventh in attempts).
4: MSU has won four straight against the Wildcats, their longest streak in the series since 1987-90.
21.62: Yards per punt return for Mark, which leads the nation. He has two touchdowns.
Three keys for MSU:
Pass to set up the run: Maxwell and the passing game had dreadful numbers in the last outing, so I don't mean pass a ton and then mix in some runs (although Northwestern has the conference's worst passing D in yardage), but MSU had 11 first-down passes against Nebraska, and kept the Husker defense off-guard. They also ran quite a bit out of the shotgun, which seemed to result in the most success for Bell. You can't rely on this offensive line to make a specific hole. Instead, Bell can wait for a hole to develop somewhere and hit that.
Force Northwestern into passing downs: The numbers are pretty self-explanatory. The Wildcats aren't very good at passing, so force them to do it. This means 3rd-and-longs. Northwestern successfully ran out of quite a few 3rd-and-mediums against Michigan, and the MSU coaches have said they have to be ready for both in those situations.
Finish strong: It has become a running joke with this game, but barring a blowout, which I'm not expecting, both teams will know they're not out of this one in the fourth quarter. Both have blown plenty of games in the final minutes. Who makes the plays at the end? MSU has rallied for a win a few times this year.
Three keys for Northwestern:
Run the ball with both Colter and Mark: While MSU generally does good against mobile quarterbacks (Denard Robinson), they struggle when said quarterback has a reliable running back (Carlos Hyde for Ohio State, Amir Abdullah for Nebraska). If Mark gets going, that will help Colter even more.
Stop the run: MSU generally isn't very efficient at running or passing the ball, but you'd rather make Maxwell beat you than Bell. This is the gameplan of every team that plays MSU.
Special teams: Mark leads the nation in punt return average (21.62 yards per game), and had broken two for touchdowns. He also had a kick return touchdown called back against Michigan due to a penalty. Mike Sadler has been a terrific punter this year, but if he outkicks his coverage or MSU's punt team overpursues (as they tend to do), Mark could break one. Northwestern's kicker, Jeff Budzien, is 12-for-13 on field goals, while Dan Conroy has been very unreliable.
Prediction: MSU 24-21
I had a major problem coming up with a prediction for this one. The Nebraska game was a major fail for the defense, but does having the bye week fix things? Northwestern's defense hasn't been great, but we know MSU's offense is not so good. I'm going out on a limb and saying this comes down to the very end. Who makes the plays to win it? I'll go with the Spartans to reach bowl eligibility. --
And thank you to the 2012 senior class. Sure, this season hasn't gone according to plan, but these players were also a big part of the program's turnaround.