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LOOK WHO’S TRYING TO CRASH THE HOMECOMING PARTY

Posted By Ben Chiswick On Oct 20 2010 @ 7:59 pm In Northwestern | No Comments

Buckle your seat belts. We’re going to have a good one this Saturday at Ryan Field.

In my last blog, I talked about how the Wildcats schedule would get increasingly difficult following the bye week.

Well, here we are.

After going 5-1 (1-1 in the Big Ten) during the first half of the season, Northwestern will celebrate homecoming this weekend with an 11:00 am showdown against the Michigan State Spartans (7-0, 3-0).

Not a lot of people are giving the ‘Cats much of a chance. Michigan State, sitting atop the Big Ten conference and ranking No. 7 in the first BCS ranking of the year, is favored by nearly a touchdown. The Spartans’ impressive 7-0 start is their best since 1966. It has included wins over Wisconsin, Michigan and a surprisingly good Illinois team – not to mention a signature overtime win against Notre Dame back on September 18 that culminated with a game-winning fake punt and captured the eyes of the nation.

Like the Wildcats, the Spartans’ schedule also allows them to avoid having to play Ohio State. That means that their most difficult remaining game comes one week after the trip to Evanston, when a date with the #15 Iowa Hawkeyes looms in Iowa City. Northwestern may be able to benefit from a fairly dangerous trap game for “Sparty.”

Through the first seven weeks of the season Michigan State has gotten it done by running the ball and playing defense, which is ironic because their most high profile player is probably starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. The junior captain has thrown for 11 touchdowns and four interceptions while accumulating 231 passing yards-per-game, running the offense more so than he is powering it.

Meanwhile, the ground game is bulldozing through teams at a clip of 206.1 yards-per-game to rank 26th in the nation. Look out for the youthful two-headed monster of sophomore Edwin Baker and true freshman Le’Veon Bell, who have combined for 1,268 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns and 6.8 yards-per-carry on the year. Baker leads the way with 100.9 yards-per-game and the two rank fifth and sixth in the Big Ten in rushing.

Defensively, it is all about the turnovers.

The Michigan State defense is among the FBS leaders with 12 interceptions (T-3rd), 18 takeaways (T-7th) and a +1.14 turnover margin (9th). That adds up to just 16.6 points allowed-per-game, which checks in 17th nationally. The Spartans’ D is led by linebacker Greg Jones, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against Illinois last Saturday.

There is no question the Wildcats will have their hands full, but make no mistake – this is still a winnable game.

Michigan State boasts a stout defense, but Northwestern’s unique offense and Dan Persa’s ability to run it always presents a challenge. Remember, Persa is also among the FBS leaders, sitting atop the nation in completion percentage and ranking in the top-5 in passing efficiency and total offense. And don’t think Pat Fitzgerald didn’t have the offense working on some new wrinkles over the bye week to prepare for this match-up.

The Wildcats have also been effective in the turnover department, looming just behind Michigan State with 10 interceptions, 14 takeaways and a +0.83 turnover margin.

This game may very well come down to Northwestern’s ability to slow down Michigan State’s running game. While the Wildcats struggled in that department during their only loss of the season to Purdue, the Boilermakers primarily ran from the quarterback position while the Spartans employ a more traditional ground attack.

If the ‘Cats can stop Baker and Bell and win the turnover battle, Evanston may just be a bit more rowdy than usual this homecoming weekend.

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