Northwestern Football Faces Michigan State in Bowl Contention Battle

Jonathan HodgesCorrespondent IOctober 13, 2009

EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 8: Nate Williams #57 of the Northwestern Wildcats gets ready for the hike during the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack on September 8, 2007 at Ryan Field at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 1-1) open up the second half of their season with a tough road trip to Michigan State (3-3, 2-1), who is riding a two game conference win streak and are looking to recover from a rough start to the year. NU, meanwhile, is still trying to establish its 2009 identity and needs a win to get into bowl contention with a tough stretch of games to close out the year.

Northwestern has had success against MSU in recent years, with road wins in 2005 and 2007, and is also riding a three game conference road winning streak into this game. This has indeed been an interesting series in recent years, with some all-time exciting games coming in 2001, 2006, and 2007, and the series is knotted at 5-5 over the last 10 matchups.

The Spartans garnered a third place preseason ranking from the media and were looking to build momentum from last year's nine-win Capital One Bowl season, but fell on hard times early after being upset at home by Central Michigan, losing a close game to Notre Dame in South Bend, and being crushed by Wisconsin on the road.

Since then, they've recovered nicely by tallying an overtime win over in-state rival Michigan and beating up on Illinois last week. Unfortunately, they got a bit beaten up (physically) themselves with one of their top two rushers, Glenn Winston, who is tied for the team lead with 60 carries on the year, injuring his knee which will keep him out for the year. His co-leading rusher, Larry Caper, got dinged up (also knee) but it's a relatively minor injury and he looks to be ready to play on Saturday.

The key to their offense this year, though, is the passing attack, that leads the Big Ten in passing (with over 280 yards per game) and pass efficiency (143.4 rating). Sophomore Kirk Cousins is their leading passer, but Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol is also in the mix and provides a rushing threat (Nichol injured his elbow last week and is questionable).

On defense, this is a team that was gashed early but is finding its identity under its head coach and former defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio. LB Greg Jones leads the way with 71 tackles, good for third nationally. They are tied for 12th nationally, in a group that includes NU, averaging three sacks per game.

Northwestern really needs a win here to continue moving in the right direction this year, but MSU presents a difficult challenge, especially on the road (even with NU's success on the road recently). This looks to be an interesting matchup that could continue a trend of exciting games in this series.

Opening Line: Michigan State -12.

Who Should Win:

Michigan State. Over the last two games, MSU has lived up to preseason expectations thanks to great physical play from the lines on both sides of the football. The offense has also found its identity through the air after having to replace workhorse RB Javon Ringer, who had 390 carries and 28 receptions a year ago. While they had their share of difficulties early, they're looking to ride the wave of momentum following the win over Michigan to a postseason appearance.

Upset Factor:

If the Wildcats can put together their first "complete game" against an FBS/I-A opponent this year, they could very well win this game. The NU defense has played inspired football since midway through the second quarter of the Purdue game, allowing just six points over six quarters of play and generating 10 turnovers. The offense has moved the ball well on occasion thanks to solid passing from QB Mike Kafka. If NU can put the puzzle together, they definitely have a shot to pull off the road upset.

What to Look for:

Northwestern Offense / Michigan State Defense:

Northwestern's offensive line is the root of its problems on that side of the football. It's yielded 14 sacks and 12 QB hurries on the year, while NU's running backs are averaging a rather poor 3.8 yards per carry. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has tried calling the unit out and also shaking up the lineup (both within a game and within a drive), and this week is giving himself multiple options at both guards and the center position on the depth chart.

The NU line will run into a tough opponent this week, as MSU is averaging three sacks per game, has 17 QB hurries on the year, and is allowing opponents just 3.0 yards per carry on the ground. Look out for Jerel Worthy, who leads the Spartans with 4.5 sacks this season, and Trevor Anderson causes trouble with his five TFLs and team-leading four quarterback hurries.

While the 'Cats have been generally unsuccessful running the football, Kafka has provided a legitimate passing threat to replace the graduated CJ Bacher. This season, Kafka has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 1,464 yards and 5 TDs, proving to be more than proficient as a thrower in the spread offense. And that's not to mention his legs: Discounting sacks, he's run for 216 yards and 4 TDs on the year despite opting not to run during many of the earlier games this season.

But the Wildcats will have to find a more effective way to move the football after leaving many points on the field over the past two games, especially against a proficient Big Ten defense, led by LB Greg Jones who has put up some impressive tackling numbers through just six games this year.

MSU also has two other playmakers at linebacker: Eric Gordon and Brandon Denson, making up a trio of LBs that are in the top 5 of the team for tackles. CB Chris Rucker leads the way in the secondary with four pass break-ups to go with an interception this year. They will have their work cut out for them against the NU receiving corps in what should be an interesting matchup.

The key to the NU offense will be performance of the OL: If they can successfully protect Kafka while opening up a running lane from time to time, the 'Cats could put up good enough numbers to stay in this game. NU will need its offense to put points on the board as they can't expect the defense to completely contain a Big Ten offense (especially the conference passing leader).

Northwestern Defense / Michigan State Offense:

The Wildcat defense, on the other hand, will be looking to continue the trend it started just six quarters ago. The play from the DL has been much improved (NU tallied eight sacks against Miami) and the secondary has been solid (the 'Cats have four interceptions over that span)—and that despite DE Corey Wootton and S Brendan Smith missing most of NU's last game.

Northwestern will need another great effort from the defensive line and will likely need Wootton to show that he's on the way to full recovery against a prolific MSU passing attack and an offensive line that has allowed just one sack per game this season.

QBs Cousins and Nichol have been swapped rather often this season; last game Cousins took no meaningful snaps as he was sporting an ankle injury, while Nichol sustained an elbow injury during the game. Even with both dinged up a little, expect them to come out ready to play against NU.

In the backfield, the Spartans will feature Larry Capers, MSU's leading rusher with 275 yards, and freshman Caulton Ray. Capers is averaging a respectable 4.6 yards per carry and leads the team with five rushing TDs.  Overall, MSU is averaging 4.3 yards per carry (subtracting sacks).

Then, there's the receiving corps. Seven different MSU receivers have caught at least one TD pass this season, and they are led by senior Blair White, who has 33 catches for 449 yards to go along with his four TD grabs. B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell round out the top three WR threats.

The Wildcats will be hoping Smith comes back from his hand injury to help out with this talented receiver corps. Sherrick McManis will likely be able to contain one of the receivers, while Brad Phillips and Brian Peters will have to handle the others. Both Phillips and Peters had solid games against Miami, so they, like the rest of the D, will be looking for that trend to continue.

It will be very interesting to see if the 'Cats can contain the Michigan State passing game; what happens will likely reveal the true identity of the 2009 NU defense.

Special Teams:

The NU defense has done an admirable job over the last two weeks and was a major contributor to NU's two game winning streak. P/K Stefan Demos is a big reason for that, as he has it 90 percent of his field goal tries on the year and has kicked some booming balls to put the NU coverage teams in a position to succeed.

Speaking of coverage teams, NU is 19th nationally in punt return defense and 42nd nationally in kick return defense. MSU is ranked 40th nationally both on punt and kick returns; Keshawn Martin provides a speed threat on punt returns, while he'll likely be taking over kick return duties as well after their primary guy, Winston, went down with that season-ending knee injury last week.

MSU senior kicker Brett Swenson is a very reliable kicker who has also hit 9-of-10 FGs and is 95 percent on XPs for the year. On top of that, MSU punting is ranked 24th nationally in net punting, averaging over 38 yards per punt. Half of punter Aaron Bates' punts have been downed inside the 20.

Overall, both teams play disciplined football on special teams, but the difference has been NU's virtual lack of a return game. But if the 'Cats can continue making plays happen on coverage (two recovered fumbles against Purdue), they can get plenty of momentum (although NU would benefit from a long return at some point).

Miscellaneous Notes:

Third Down Conversions: NU ranks 11th nationally in third down conversion rate (51 percent) and has more total conversions (51) than any other team in the nation.  MSU, meanwhile, is 80th in third down conversion defense, allowing over a 40 percent conversion percentage. The NU defense is allowing a 36 percent rate, while the Spartans' offense is converting 43 percent of their chances. It will be interesting to see if the NU offense can extend and complete drives after a poor showing against Miami (Ohio).

Non-QB Throwers: Both teams have receivers who have completed their only pass attempt of the season for a touchdown (NU's Andrew Brewer and MSU's Keshawn Martin).

Second Quarter Scoring: Something has to give in this game; NU has outscored its opponents by 40 in the second period while MSU has outscored its competition by 25 in the same quarter.

Fourth Quarter Scoring: While both teams have been successful in the second quarter, both are struggling in the final frame. NU has a -17 point differential in the final period while MSU has a -14 scoring margin in the fourth.

Spreading it Around: Thirteen different Michigan State receivers have at least one catch this year while 14 different NU players have at least one reception (including QB Mike Kafka).

Road Favorites? The road team has won the last four games in this series; the last home victory came in 2002 (an MSU win in East Lansing).

Injury Report:

Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder, doubtful), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, questionable), LB Ben Johnson (hamstring, questionable), S Brendan Smith (hand, questionable), DE Corey Wootton (ankle, probable).

Although NU has seen multiple defensive contributors get dinged up over the past few weeks (Smith, DiNardo, McNaul, Vaughn, and Johnson), they have seen others step up (Brian Peters, Kevin Watt, and David Arnold). Smith and Wootton will be aiming to get back on the field, and the depth chart makes it look hopeful for Vaughn and Johnson, who are listed as "or" in their respective backup positions.

One nice note is that RB Stephen Simmons did not appear on last week's injury report and is listed as the first string running back going into this game, which should be a nice boost for the running game.

Michigan State: RB Glenn Winston (knee, out for season), RB Larry Caper (knee, probable), QB Kirk Cousins (ankle, probable), QB Keith Nichol (elbow, questionable),S Roderick Jenrette (foot, out), S Kendall Davis-Clark (leg, questionable).

MSU is now suffering through their share of injuries, specifically in the offensive backfield with Winston going down for the year and both QBs suffering minor dings. It will be interesting to see who steps up for the Spartans in those key spots as they look to stay in stride.

Prediction: Northwestern 13-Michigan State 21

While NU has the ability to win this game with a "complete" performance, they haven't been able to put together such a game so far this year, even while facing very weak opponents through the first half of the season (teams NU have beat are just 3-19, and that's including FCS Towson who is 2-3).

Expect NU's defense to keep this game within reach, although the inconsistent offense just hasn't shown enough finishing power to close the deal against a Big Ten caliber defense.

As usual, hopefully the 'Cats will prove me wrong on this prediction and continue their Big Ten road successes, but until they do prove me wrong it is difficult to pick them to do something they haven't come close to doing this season.

Go 'Cats!!!