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Why Northwestern will/won't win: Michigan State

Setting aside the lopsided, guarantee games many FBS teams often play in the non-conference part of their schedules, every college football game typically allows the possibility that either team could win. Sometimes the odds are heavily stacked in one team’s favor, while other games are more evenly matched. But as this awesomely unpredictable sport has proven time and again, no team’s chances of winning should ever be completely dismissed. There is always a way.

That logic informs a new weekly feature here at InsideNU. It’s called “why Northwestern will/won’t win.” Excuse the bland, clunky title. At least it gets right to the point, which is to explain why the Wildcats – wait for it – will or won’t win their upcoming game. Some arguments won’t be as convincing as others, but that’s impossible to avoid, anyway: not all games have tiny point spreads, after all. There is, but for a few exceptional cases, a favorite and an underdog. Explaining the latter’s (whether that be Northwestern or not) path to hypothetical victory will require some creativity. Some cases will be easier to address.

This week’s matchup: Michigan State

Why Northwestern will win

Beating Michigan State will require Northwestern not to beat itself. One can argue the Wildcats have done that throughout much of their six-game losing streak: a bad penalty at Iowa, poor Hail Mary defense against Nebraska, a dropped interception against Michigan, and so on.

The reason limiting mistakes is so important this week for Northwestern is that its opponent, Michigan State, specializes in capitalizing off opponents’ mistakes and minimizing its own. The Spartans rank first in the Big Ten in turnover margin (1.10), sixth in the country in turnovers lost (10) and beat Nebraska last week largely because they committed zero turnovers to the Huskers’ five. The Wildcats rank fourth in the conference in turnover margin (0.50), but they’ve regressed in that department since last year, when they ranked first at 1.08.

The Spartans’ defense is frightening enough to deal with when it’s not forcing turnovers; start coughing up the ball, and Pat Narduzzi’s unit will terrorize Kain Colter and company.

Speaking of defense: Northwestern’s might not be as good as Michigan State’s – The Spartans rank first in the country in total defense, first in rushing defense, fifth in passing defense and second in third down defense – but it’s better than most people give it credit for. In the latest F + ratings released at Football Outsiders, Northwestern ranks 30th nationally on defense (compared to 68th on offense). On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Michigan State’s offense, maligned through the first half of this season, is getting better by the week. In fact, according to FO, the Spartans’ offense (65th) now ranks ahead of Northwestern’s.

That’s not saying much, given the way Northwestern’s offense has looked in recent weeks, but it does speak to the improvements the Spartans (who scored just two offensive touchdowns the first two weeks of the season against weak competition) have made on that side of the ball – and how that compares to the Wildcats’ downturn in offensive production during their six-game losing streak. Maybe the most impressive thing about Michigan State’s offense is its ability to sustain long drives: no team in the country boasts a higher average time of possession (34:56) than the Spartans.

On Saturday, Northwestern will need to make sure its sneakily good defense is better than Michigan State’s steadily improving offense. Because if it’s not – if Michigan State can move the ball and score frequently – Northwestern won’t be able to keep up. Not against a defense this good.

Why Northwestern won’t win

This is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Before I explain, I recommend you checkout this informative column by Michigan State beat writer Mike Griffith, wherein Northwestern and Michigan State’s statistics (and their rankings) are compared to those of national leaders in various categories. You’ll find, unsurprisingly, that Michigan State has the edge over Northwestern in most categories.

That’s because Michigan State is a better team than the Wildcats, on both sides of the ball. For part of this season, that statement would have been only half-true, because Northwestern had a better offense. Now the Spartans are better on offense and defense – statistically and empirically; have much, much more to play for (a Big Ten championship); and seem to be catching every lucky break that Northwestern isn’t. These teams currently reside on opposite poles of the luck spectrum.

Last week’s game at Nebraska may have exposed a few weaknesses – ones coach Pat Fitzgerald refused to disclose at his Monday press conference. “I’m not telling you that, “ he said. “Hi, Mark. How are you doing, Coach Dantonio?” The problem for Northwestern is that is can’t simply duplicate what Nebraska did against Michigan State because it doesn’t have the same players – namely running back Ameer Abdullah, who rushed for 123 yards on 5.6 yards per carry against the Spartans – the Huskers do. Nebraska’s offensive production (6.1 yards per play, 5.7 yards per rush, two third quarter touchdowns) is an encouraging sign for any team that plays the Spartans the rest of the season, and maybe Michigan State’s defense is now prone to giving up more points than it was in the weeks leading up to its trip to Lincoln.

An equally plausible scenario is that the Spartans – against an offense that hasn’t scored 30 or more points since October 5 – will re-establish their defensive dominance by smothering the Wildcats. That’s their formula for victory, and it will probably work Saturday.