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Opponent Q&A: MLive.Com Michigan State Beat Writer Michael Griffith

For Northwestern, this season's starting to become more about what could have been than what actually is. Blowing three double-digit second-half leads will leave a bad taste, and -- from many fans' perspectives -- potentially override all your other accomplishments. The Wildcats' next test won't offer any relief. Michigan State, despite numerous close losses this season, still boasts one of the Big Ten's best defenses, still has an NFL-bound workhorse at tailback and still has a lot to play for with two weeks remaining. Northwestern will need its best effort to knock off the Spartans in East Lansing. Though Spartans fans are probably welcoming in the promise of another strong hoops season, football passion burns deep in those parts, and you can bet Michigan State will bring its A-game in this divisional matchup. Which is another way of saying, this is a big game, no matter the circumstances (Northwestern's loss last week, MSU's failure to live up to expectations) pointing otherwise. To get you prepared, MLive. com's Michael Griffith gave us some perspective on what to expect from the green and white. You can follow him on twitter @MikeGriffith32.

Besides the 20-3 week 3 loss to Notre Dame, none of Michigan State's defeats have been decided by more than four points. Can you pinpoint a specific issue this team has in closing out games? Is it a mental issue?

MG: Not mental, has more to do with the competition level and the defense's inability to stop the 2-minute offense.

How has the fan base handled Michigan State's unexpected struggles? Many pegged this team as a potential national title contender and the Legends Division favorite. Where do the fans stand on this season's performance?

MG: Like most any other fanbase, attendance drops when you're not winning, and fans become critical of players and coaches. MSU fans are disappointed in how the Spartans have performed after back-to-back 11-win seasons.

There's little question the Spartans have the Big Ten's best defense. There were high hopes for this unit heading into the season, and the Spartans have done well to meet those expectations. Are there any specific areas in which the defense has struggled? Where the production doesn't meet the hype?

MG: I'm not certain this is the Big Ten's best defense -- perhaps statistically -- MSU has given up fourth-quarter leads in three of the past four games. Speed at linebacker is somewhat suspect, and injuries at safety were costly against Nebraska.

Is there a growing sense that defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has run his course as a college coordinator? What are the chances he takes a head job this offseason?

MG: I'm not so sure a defensive coordinator from a 5-5 team looks as attractive as one coming off two 11-win seasons, especially when one considers the blown leads.

After losing starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and top receivers B.J. Cunningham and KeShawn, it was reasonable to expect this offensive to struggle early on. But with Andrew Maxwell learning under Cousins, and star back Le'Veon Bell returning, most believed the offense would rebound into a formidable unit. What has gone wrong on that side of the ball? Can you highlight any specific pitfalls (s)?

MG: MSU has used six different offensive line combinations as a result of injuries, and the speed at receiver appears pedestrian, with little separation taking place. Receivers dropped passes earlier in the season. The makeshift offensive line has not been consistent protecting the QB or getting a push in the run game.

Do you sense any mental letdown from this team, having fallen short of preseason expectations? With the BCS out of the picture, have you noticed any shift in team chemistry or attitude? Can you notice any notions of defeatism or disappointment in the locker room?

MG: To Dantonio's credit, he has kept the Spartans playing hard. I have not seen a letdown yet.

What is the Spartans' biggest strength? Biggest Weakness?

MG: Defense remains the strength. The passing game is the weakness.

Name one player on offense and one on defense who hasn't received enough credit this season. Fans know about Bell and William Gholston, but can you come up with one player on each side of the ball who has really stepped up without getting due praise?

MG: On defense, Bullough has been a rock at MLB. On offense, guard Chris McDonald has quietly had an All-Big Ten type of season.

Prediction?

MG: Northwestern 27, Michigan State 24, in OT