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Opponent breakdown: Week 11, Michigan State

by Steven Goldstein (@StevenGoldfish)

With a third closely contested loss of 2012, it seems the Northwestern Wildcats are in a perpetual bounce-back mode.

An overtime bout with Michigan last week dropped the ‘Cats to 3-3 in Big Ten play, now needing a win in East Lansing Saturday to remain competitive in the bowl hunt. While Michigan State has been a disappointment, standing at just 5-5 despite a No. 13 preseason rank, the Spartans are far from an easy win.

Northwestern is just 2-2 on the road, while the Spartans have won 18 of 24 all-time home match-ups with the Wildcats. Still, with the speed of running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, and the scoring struggles of a shoddy Michigan State offense, NU has to be favored in this one.

Check out a complete breakdown of Northwestern’s week 11 opponent, and see how the Wildcats can avoid a trap game Saturday.

Players to watch:

Offense: Le’Veon Bell

While Michigan State’s passing offense has struggled all season, junior tailback Le’Veon Bell has some serious big play potential. Bell’s taken 283 carries for nearly 1,250 rushing yards, and has hit the end-zone 11 total times.

Standing at over 240 pounds, Bell’s a physical runner who can push between the guards and shed tackles. Still, his athleticism and edge speed allow him to reach the second level consistently.

Adding 29 receptions (the fourth-highest total among Spartan receivers), Bell is a versatile back who paces this offense. Northwestern’s allowing just 3.59 yards per carry to opposing ‘backs, so something has to give come Saturday.

Defense: Max Bullough

Junior linebacker Max Bullough has been everywhere for this Spartans defense, which ranks 11th in FBS scoring defense. Bullough’s tallied a team-high 87 tackles through 10 games, and ties for the team lead in sacks with two.

Adding a forced fumble against Ohio State and an interception and two pass breakups against Michigan, Bullough is a play-maker who Northwestern will eye closely Saturday.

Bullough has notched double-digit tackles against four Big Ten opponents, and is garnering All-American nominations.

Biggest strength: passing defense

Michigan State’s been lights-out in pass defense, ranking 13th nationally in opposing yards allowed through the air. Quarterbacks are completing just over 52 percent of passes against the Spartans’ secondary, and despite a sub-par pass rush, MSU has done a great job blanketing Big Ten receivers.

Against Nebraska last week, the Spartans allowed just 160 passing yards to quarterback Taylor Martinez, intercepting him three times, while senior tight end Kyler Reed lead all Cornhuskers with a paltry 41 receiving yards.

Biggest weakness: third-down offense

Michigan State’s converting less than 39 percent of its third downs this year, a key reason for its 2-4 conference record.

With junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell failing to live up to predecessor Kirk Cousins, MSU has struggled in long-yardage situations and could be in for a rough afternoon if the running game stalls.

Under the radar: Bennie Fowler

While Michigan State’s passing offense has had a down year, don’t discount wideout Bennie Fowler, who has a team-high three touchdown receptions in his junior season. Fowler’s tallied a career-high 31 receptions thus far, and against Northwestern’s porous secondary, he could certainly break out and put up a healthy stat line.