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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Michigan State

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Will the Wildcats get back to .500 in East Lansing?

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.

This week, the Wildcats travel to East Lansing, Michigan to face off with 2-3 Michigan State. The Spartans—the defending Big Ten Champs and a team many thought would compete with Ohio State and Michigan for the crown this season—enter this matchup on the heels of their first three-game losing streak since 2009, most recently falling 31-14 to BYU. Though many fans fans pegged this game as a loss for Northwestern before the season, the Spartans’ struggles and Northwestern’s huge upset of Iowa have Pat Fitzgerald’s group thinking otherwise. A win this week would be a major step toward bowl eligibility for the Wildcats, but beating the Spartans on the road will be no easy feat. Here are the reasons Northwestern will or won’t win Saturday.

Why Northwestern will beat Michigan State

1. Northwestern’s offense will own third down

Neither team’s offense is super explosive — Northwestern and Michigan State rank 96th and 101st in IsoPPP, respectively. So, whichever offense can extend drives and control the clock will have a big advantage Saturday. Though Northwestern’s offense isn’t very explosive, it’s actually pretty good on third down. The Wildcats rank 36th in third down S&P+. And, Michigan State’s defense is a lowly 119th in third down S&P+.

This combination of (pretty) good offense and poor defense will keep the Spartan defense on the field and, maybe more importantly, keep the Wildcat defense fresh. Third downs are important for any team, but they’re especially key for Northwestern this week given the third down disparity between the teams so far this season.

2. Justin Jackson will (steadily) run through the Spartans

Michigan State’s run defense has been puzzling this season. The Spartans allowed just 122 yards on the ground against a strong Wisconsin team, but gave up 260 yards — 163 to lead back Jamaal Williams — last week at home against BYU. Overall, Michigan State ranks 84th in defensive rushing S&P. But, the Spartans jump up to 26th in defensive rushing IsoPPP. While explosive plays like this may be hard to come by for Justin Jackson and Northwestern’s rushing attack, there is some success to be had.

Though Clayton Thorson has improved this season, Jackson is the focal point of the Wildcat offense. To get a win in East Lansing, Northwestern will need Jackson to, at the very least, take some pressure off of Thorson. More likely than not, though, the Wildcats will need a big game from Jackson to get the win this week. If Jackson can come through, look for a Wildcat W.

3. Northwestern’s defensive line will show up big-time again

Michigan State benched quarterback Tyler O’Connor during last week’s loss to BYU and listed three quarterbacks at QB1 this week. With the Spartans’ uncertainty under center, Northwestern’s defensive line becomes incredibly important. Ifeadi Odenigbo & Co. came alive against Iowa last week, and Northwestern will need a similar performance this week. Michigan State will probably try to establish the running game early due to the quarterback situation, so the Wildcat defensive line has to be up to the task. Another big performance Saturday will go a long way toward a victory.

Why Michigan State will beat Northwestern

1. The Spartan defensive line will dominate the game

Though the Northwestern offensive line held it together against Iowa, it has been atrocious for most of the season. This week, the line faces a challenge unlike any they have seen thus far: preseason first team All-American pick Malik McDowell. McDowell could wreak havoc in the Northwestern backfield this week, which would make it extremely difficult for Thorson, Jackson and the rest of the offense to get into any sort of rhythm. Northwestern’s offensive line got manhandled against Illinois State earlier this season and, with no disrespect to the Redbirds, their defensive line is not nearly as good as Michigan State’s.

2. Northwestern will lose the turnover battle

In a game that looks like it will be relatively low-scoring, Northwestern cannot afford to turn the ball over. Thorson has five turnovers in five games this season, which isn’t bad, but he has proven to fall fatal to ill-timed turnovers in the redzone. Because Northwestern’s offense is not explosive, turnovers are that much more crippling for the team as a whole.

With McDowell’s presence on the inside, Thorson may have to get rid of ball quickly at times, a recipe for turning the ball over. After a lackluster performance a week ago, Mark Dantonio will surely make sure his defense is ready to play this week. In a loud stadium, taking care of the ball will be paramount for Northwestern.

3. Tyler O’Connor will bounce back and torch the Wildcats’ secondary

Dantonio benching O’Connor last week feels like a wake-up call. The chances are that O’Connor will the guy this week, and he could have good chance to succeed. Northwestern’s secondary is still thin, and it’s not like O’Connor has been horrible all season. He threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Spartans’ overtime loss to Indiana and completed over 70 percent of his passes in a high-scoring win against Notre Dame, before Notre Dame became a train wreck. There’s a reason O’Connor was the clear heir apparent to Connor Cook coming into the season, and he’ll have a chip on his shoulder this weekend.