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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Michigan State

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These are the battles to keep an eye on.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

While Michigan State heads into this week’s contest as a heavy Vegas favorite, Northwestern has had Sparty’s number over recent years. Here are the matchups that will have a big impact in determining whether the Wildcats maintain their win streak.

Northwestern’s run game vs. the MSU defense

Michigan State enters this game with one of the best run defenses in the nation, in addition to an elite all-around group on that side of the ball. The Spartans have conceded only 23.3 yards per game on the ground through three games, a stunning number, in addition to just a single touchdown. It has been nearly impossible for opponents to run the ball against MSU.

Another issue working against Northwestern in this area is injury problems for Isaiah Bowser and Jesse Brown. Bowser sustained a knee injury against Stanford and didn’t play against UNLV, though he has been practicing to an extent. Brown broke out in the first two weeks but also suffered an injury against UNLV that took him out of the game. The health of those two will be imperative to the run game’s success. Drake Anderson looks to be finding his form, but he’ll need help on Saturday.

Northwestern’s red zone defense vs. Brian Lewerke

In Northwestern’s three consecutive wins over MSU, the Wildcats haven’t been able to limit the Spartans’ scoring for the most part. The defense gave up 40, 31 (3OT) and 19 points, and the ‘Cats still managed to win each game. This year, it will be imperative to limit MSU’s scoring to allow the offense a margin for error against Michigan State’s vaunted defense.

Hunter Johnson showed glimpses of his potential against UNLV, executing some beautiful throws, but he also made mistakes that will be punished to a greater extent by a better football team. If the defense allows Johnson to make some of those mistakes, NU will have a chance to win. If not, it’ll be an extremely difficult effort. That battle starts with NU’s defense getting Brian Lewerke off the field quick and early and holding tough in the red zone like they have in past seasons to make the Spartans kick field goals.

Special teams

An integral part of any defense-based matchup is the ensuing special teams play. There are going to be a lot of punts in this game, and kickers will play a vital role in putting points on the board.

Through two games, NU seems to have the advantage in the kicking game. Against UNLV, Charlie Kuhbander was crucial for Northwestern, going 3-for-3 on field goals and nailing one from 40+, an area that he struggled with last year when dealing with an injury. Matt Coghlin, on the other hand, went 0-for-3 on field goals in the Spartans’ loss last weekend including a brutal shank on the potential tying field goal.

In all fairness, Coghlin had hit previously from 42 yards before having that make negated by a 12-men on the field penalty from the Spartans.

Michigan State’s Jake Hartbarger has been solid punting for the Spartans thus far. The senior has pinned opposing offenses inside the 20 on four of his 10 punts this year, and has a net average of 42.4 yards per punt. Daniel Kubiuk has also impressed for the Wildcats, pinning opponents inside the 20 on five of his eight punts this year.

Another aspect to watch will be Northwestern’s kickoffs. They have been a genuine problem through two games. Don’t be surprised if special teams determines the outcome of this game.