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Where Are We Wednesday, Week 7: In the thick of things

Northwestern has a big opportunity for a statement win against Michigan State.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where the team currently sits in the big picture of things, whether that be the Big Ten West, the Big Ten or even the nation. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that location changes every week based on what both the team and the teams around them do. Here's the Week 7 edition.

Northwestern football was heading directly toward proverbial rock bottom a few weeks ago, when a home loss to Nebraska sent the Wildcats to 1-3 in a young season that felt lost after it was only a third of the way through.

But, a trip to Iowa City the Saturday before last finally got the Wildcats going in the right direction. Northwestern stunned the home crowd at Kinnick Stadium with a 38-31 win over Iowa mostly thanks to Austin Carr’s three touchdown catches.

The chemistry the senior wide receiver has developed with Clayton Thorson has been, by far, the most promising development of the season.

Justin Jackson added 171 yards and a score in that game as well, but it was far from a perfect performance by the Wildcats, who went into their bye week on a high note. Still the punt and kick coverage teams were awful and the pass defense inconsistent. The surprisingly explosive offensive attack and stout run defense, though, were what NU needed.

Now, the team moves onto East Lansing to play a Michigan State team that is reeling at the moment. The Spartans, after season-opening wins against Furman and struggling Notre Dame, have dropped their last three games, two at home.

With former star signal-caller Connor Cook in the NFL, Mark Dantonio’s team turned to Tyler O’Connor under center this season, and it hasn’t gone too well. It’s almost hard to believe the Spartans were in the College Football Playoff last January, and now don’t even have a set starting quarterback.

Still, at his Monday press conference, Pat Fitzgerald only had praise for Michigan State, even though the Spartans are unranked now after sitting at No. 8 in the AP Top 25 poll just three weeks ago.

“This is a team that has won Big Ten championships,” Fitzgerald said about the usual Big Ten East heavyweight. “They know how to win and are always sitting right up there with Michigan, Ohio State in terms of talent.”

Fitzgerald knows that his Northwestern team is going to face a stiff challenge from the desperate Spartans, who need to stop the bleeding with Maryland and Michigan coming up on the schedule. As for the Wildcats, Indiana and Ohio State — two good teams — await after Saturday’s game in East Lansing.

A major key for Northwestern this weekend will be stopping the two-headed Spartans’ running game. As Ian McCafferty wrote yesterday, Michigan State has struggled on the ground in the last couple of games, which works perfectly for the Wildcats, who shut down both Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels in Iowa City.

LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes are still both high-quality Big Ten running backs but have been extremely up-and-down so far this season. If Ifeadi Odenigbo and Co. can continue to get penetration against Michigan State’s offensive line like they did against Iowa, Scott and Holmes won’t have much room to run, putting pressure on O’Connor to make perfect throws.

“They have three great running backs that we have to be ready for,” Anthony Walker said on Monday. “We have to bring our A-game no matter who’s playing.”

While Northwestern won’t be the favorite to win this game, the Wildcats seem to have a much better shot at sneaking out of East Lansing with a win than they probably did a few weeks ago. And if Northwestern does win, the entire feeling around the season will change.

Already, it feels like the 1-3 start was an eternity ago, and maybe the bye week has something to do with that. Still it feels like at the halfway point of the year, the Wildcats are at an inflection point.

A loss this Saturday and the Wildcats, at 2-4, face a very steep uphill climb toward a bowl appearance. But a win would seemingly make bowl eligibility — a baseline expectation for this team — not a far-flung possibility.

The vaunted October schedule, which we wrote a lot about before the season began, is already one-fourth completed with the Wildcats winning a game not many people expected them to win, let alone compete in.

It’s vital that Northwestern at least stick with Michigan State for the whole game on Saturday. Even a close loss, while disappointing, would do wonders for keeping the team’s momentum and confidence going forward through the rest of the season, and even onto next year.

Last year, the 5-0 start was quickly derailed by back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa. After that, at the critical juncture, the Wildcats won out. Without that cushion, the 2016 Wildcats cannot afford to slip and lose the positive feelings from the Iowa upset. They need to keep pushing forward.

There were a lot of positive signs from the game two weeks ago, most of them on the offensive side of the ball, which has been the most worrisome for this team in recent years. As great as that may be, one bad performance can negate all that and push the Wildcats back behind the so-called 8-ball. A poor performance pushes NU back to where it was post-Nebraska.

The problem is that Michigan State is probably even more desperate than Northwestern to win this game. Mark Dantonio hasn’t lost much since he arrived in East Lansing, but if this season keeps getting worse, he might miss a bowl game for the first time in his Spartans tenure. With both teams’ backs up against the wall, only one is going to be able to end on top. If it’s Northwestern, it’s yet another major step forward and away from the poor start. If it’s not, though, questions and doubts will loom.