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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Michigan State

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Northwestern hasn’t lost a road game in over a year.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘Cats head up to East Lansing on Saturday to take on No. 20 Michigan State, a team that looks vulnerable despite a 3-1 record. Here are some reasons why Northwestern will/won’t beat Michigan State.

Why Northwestern will beat Michigan State

1. Michigan State is severely overrated and injured

Like most of the Big Ten, the Spartans have not lived up to the hype after starting the season ranked No. 11 in the country. They almost dropped their season opener to Utah State at home and looked flat in their loss at Arizona State. Brian Lewerke has racked up yardage but has also thrown five interceptions in just four games. Standout running back LJ Scott could be limited as he recovers from an ankle injury and the Spartans will also be without leading receiver Cody White, who tore up the Northwestern secondary in last year’s matchup.

2. A win keeps Northwestern very much alive in the Big Ten West Race

After three straight losses, it’s hard to believe that Northwestern still has something to play for, but this team controls their own destiny in the West division so we’ll remain optimistic for as long as we can. If Northwestern pulls off the upset on Saturday, the Wildcats would carry a 2-1 B1G record into games against Nebraska and Rutgers (both lacking a conference win) before Wisconsin comes to Ryan Field on October 27. If the Wildcats could somehow get to that game unscathed, there will be a whole lot to play for when the Badgers come to town.

3. History is on the ‘Cats side (undefeated against Sparty since 2013!)

Ok, so the two teams have only met twice since 2013, but Northwestern has won back-to-back matchups against the Spartans, including last year’s triple overtime thriller.

For some inexplicable reason, the Wildcats offense seems to find a groove when they play Michigan State. In the 2016 victory, Clayton Thorson completed 27-of-35 passes for three touchdowns (important to note Michigan State finished 3-9 that year). Last year, Thorson looked awesome, going 33-of-48 for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern is weird.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Michigan State

1. Michigan State has the best run defense in the country

The Spartans are statistically the best rushing defense in the country allowing just 40.3 yards per game. Northwestern is 123rd in the country in rushing offense. Jeremy Larkin no longer plays football for Northwestern. The Northwestern offensive line is banged up and below average.

Advantage, Michigan State.

2. Northwestern can’t throw the ball

The Wildcats will have to turn to the air to win given the Spartans’ absolute fortress of a front seven and that doesn’t bode well for a team that struggles to throw the ball down the field. Michigan State’s secondary has proved vulnerable this year, but the NU trifecta of poor pass protection, an inconsistent receiving corps and uncreative play-calling gives us little reason to believe Northwestern is capable of winning this game in the air.

3. The defensive performance against Michigan was a fluke

The Northwestern defense deserves credit for their performance against Michigan last weekend — holding Shea Patterson and company to 20 points should’ve been enough to win the game. While the defense did remain stout through three quarters against a tough opponent, continued breakdowns in coverage and missed tackles shed light on plenty of ineptitude in the NU defense for the Spartans to exploit on Saturday.