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Northwestern vs. Michigan State: Three matchups to watch

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Their seasons couldn’t have started any differently, but going into this weekend, Northwestern and Michigan State both sit at 2-3. A win for either side would go a long way for two teams scrapping for bowl eligibility.

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

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern.

Justin Jackson vs. Michigan State’s Front Seven

For the most part, Michigan State’s success stopping the run and their success as a team have been proportional. In their dominating Week One win over Furman, they allowed just 87 rush yards on 33 attempts (2.6 yards per carry), but in their four games since, they’ve given up an average of 199.5 rush yards per game. In related news, the Spartans are 1-3 over those four games.

Jackson enters the weekend third in the Big Ten in rush yards (510) and coming off his best performance of the season against Iowa (26 rushes, 171 yards and a 58-yard touchdown). Questions continue to swirl around Northwestern’s offensive line, but if they can create holes for Jackson the way they did against Iowa, Northwestern could take another step towards righting what once appeared to be a ship-wreck of a season.

Austin Carr vs. Vayante Copeland

Copeland gets the matchup against the Big Ten’s leading receiver and Clayton Thorson’s favorite target this Saturday. The way Carr’s playing, it doesn’t figure to be an easy assignment for the Spartans’ top corner. Carr has a touchdown in four of Northwestern’s five games and 100-yard games in two of the five. For a Michigan State team that has struggled to defend at the second level all year (12th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game), the Thorson-Carr connection could again play a large part in determining the outcome in this one.

Ifeadi Odenigbo vs. Michigan State’s Offensive Line

Odenigbo finally broke out against Iowa with a dominant four-sack performance against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcat defense still gave up 31 points, but their defense looks drastically different when complemented by a reliable pass rush. If Michigan State continues to struggle running the football (an aspect of the game Odenigbo will also have an affect on), the Northwestern defensive line - and Odenigbo specifically - can do a lot to take the pressure off a young, injury-depleted secondary if they can pick up where they left off against Iowa.