by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
When Northwestern Has the Ball…
There’s no need to remind you of the climactic moment from last week’s game, the one that ended with Roy Roundtree prone on the Big House turf, sheepish grin visibly illuminating his face through his facemask, football in tow, tying field goal forthcoming (oops). It was an unfortunate and disastrous turn of events that robbed the Wildcats of what would have been their best win to date. The final play was the most disappointing sequence in an overall disappointing day. It will not be easily forgotten. The story within the story from last week has a more positive spin than the last-minute dramatics that led to defeat. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian quietly pieced together arguably their best performance to date – I find last week more impressive than the Indiana game; graded against competition, it’s tough to argue Colter and Siemian have been more effective against a quality defense all season.
In any case, it was a strong performance, and both quarterbacks will need to be on their game against Michigan State’s ferocious defense, which ranks first in the Big Ten in yards per play (4.51). Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen command the middle of the defense with terrific coverage and run support. Cornerback Johnny Adams is one of the best one-on-one cover guys in the country and a likely early-round draft pick. Defensive end William Gholston combines elite pass-rushing skills with eye-popping physical tools to wreak havoc off the edge. This is the kind of unit that can stall all the positive momentum Northwestern has built on offense over the past few weeks. If the Wildcats can carry over last week’s effective quarterback gameplan, they should find some cracks against this defense. As my colleague Kevin Trahan so keenly pointed out yesterday, Michigan State has dropped four games to teams with running quarterbacks (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska). Which is to say NU has at least a basic blueprint for how to use Colter’s dual-threat skills against MSU’s front. Add Siemian’s suddenly improved throwing accuracy, and you get an offense with the versatility and personnel to exploit the Spartans’ defense. In theory, at least.
Edge: Michigan State
When Michigan State Has the Ball…
For all the individual talent and depth Michigan State brings on defense, the Spartans’ team dynamic is grossly lopsided. Michigan State simply cannot get things going on the offensive side of the ball. Don’t get me wrong: tailback Le’Veon Bell is a bruising workhorse with a bright NFL future, and 6-5, 285-pound tight end Dion Sims is a physical mismatch at a prime position. That said, the negatives outweigh the positives. Perhaps the biggest problem is the offensive line, where Michigan State has used six different combinations due to various injuries. Subpar protection has stunted the growth of new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and hampered Bell’s production to an equal degree, as the physical back is often met behind the line of scrimmage and forced to fend off defenders just to make positive ground. There is little speed or explosiveness at wide receiver, which has allowed defenses to focus on stuffing the box and loading up for bear against Bell.
The Wildcats will probably take a similar approach. NU will try to key in on Bell at the line of scrimmage using a variety of different packages. The way the rush defense has stepped up in recent weeks, and the constantly improving linebacking corps, I give the Wildcats more than a fair chance of limiting Bell in a major way. He’s one of the most powerful backs in all of college football, but the Wildcats have improved their fortunes at the line of scrimmage in recent weeks. Tackles Brian Arnfelt and Sean McEvily are generating a strong push at the point of attack, while ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams have offered more consistent pressure off the edge. Winning the line of scrimmage will be key (as always); given the way NU has fared of late, and the way MSU’s offensive line has struggled, stopping Bell doesn’t feel like a huge stretch. It feels downright reasonable.
In August, Pat Fitzgerald called Venric Mark the best kick returner in the country. At the time, it felt like a coach exaggerating his player’s worth, an encouraging but probably overcast perception of Mark’s potential. It’s true that Mark may not deserve that title. There are a handful of explosive return men across the country, many of whom can make convincing arguments in their own right. The fact Mark is even part of that conversation is a bonus unto itself. He made another strong case against Michigan last week, when a holding penalty negated a potential 90-plus yard kick return for touchdown. His open-field explosiveness and ability to find holes and cutback lanes is unrivaled, and I’m willing to bet Mark will house another run back by season’s end. It may not happen this week, but three games is far too long a time for Mark to stay quiet on special teams. He’s that good. So maybe coach Fitzgerald had a point.
As for Michigan State, special teams have been merely ok. Nothing special, just ok. The Spartans have connected on 17 of 24 field goal attempts and feature average kick and punt return units. Their greatest strength is in the punting game, where sophomore Mike Sadler leads the Big Ten with his 42.59-yard per punt average. Comparatively, this isn’t really a fair fight. When you have a dealbreaker like Mark on your side, it’s going to massive advantages in all other sectors of special teams play for the opponent to make a legitimate argument. The Spartans are better in some areas, but not enough to override Mark’s game breaking ability.
Northwestern 21, Michigan State 17 – This is what I like to call gut-check time for Northwestern. Overcoming the devastation of last week’s loss against one of the nation’s best defenses will demand new levels of emotional and physical toughness from the Wildcats. Not only are the Wildcats taking on a tough opponent looking to salvage its season in a hostile environment. They are battling the bad taste of last week’s loss. Losing in such devastating fashion can have one of two effects: 1) it can demoralize you and linger into another bad performance 2) it can bring the best out of you and inspire greater effort. Here’s to believing NU takes option No. 2, meets the challenges ahead and sets the course for a strong end to the 2012-13 season.