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Three big things: Michigan State

Every game hinges on a few critical “things” — players, schemes or specific plays that could play a big role in deciding the winner and loser. It’s an important concept with a blunt title; “things” are important, however vague they might sound. InsideNU will attempt to identify the three biggest ones in advance of Northwestern’s game each week. This week’s matchup: Michigan State.

Michigan State’s defense is really, really good

If you like defense, you’ll enjoy watching Michigan State play. I’m just going to be pretty brief here with how good the Spartans have been this year defensively. Football Outsiders has Michigan State as the top-ranked team in defensive efficiency. The Spartans are also 8th in the nation in turnover margin, fifth in passing yards allowed and fourth in scoring defense. It doesn’t end there. MSU ranks second in third down conversion percentage defense, opponents’ first downs and passing efficiency defense. The Spartans have the top defensive unit in the country when it comes to rushing yards allowed and total defense. Mark Dantonio’s squad also leads the country in time of possession. Below is a five-minute highlight of Michigan State’s 29-6 thrashing of Michigan a few weeks ago. You may actually feel bad for Michigan after watching it, but probably not.

A trap game for MSU?

If there’s one thing going Northwestern’s way this week, it’s that Michigan State has all but locked up a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game by clinching a share of the Legends Division title last week (MSU needs another win or a Minnesota loss to go to Indianapolis). It’s a trap game for the Spartans, especially with the 25th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers looming the following weekend. Northwestern, on the other hand, needs to beat Michigan State to keep its hopes of bowl eligibility alive for one more game. It’s senior day in Evanston, adding a little more positive, yet intangible, karma for Northwestern, as fourteen seniors will play in their final home game for the Wildcats.

 Northwestern’s conservative offense

I may or may not have chosen this topic as a “big thing” because I just wanted to mention how stout Michigan State’s defense is. To repeat, it’s really, really good. Northwestern’s offense, though, hasn’t been for the better part of this season. It is doubtful that Northwestern will be able to put up enough points to beat Michigan State. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mick McCall must find a way to infuse some life into the offense. It’s going to take at least a couple game-changing, momentum-swinging plays to be in Northwestern’s favor if they are to win on Saturday. If Fitzgerald and McCall are able to shift any type of schematic advantage to Northwestern’s offense—even if it entails some degree of risk—they must pull the trigger. There’s no time left to hold back.