• The matchup: MSU (8-4) vs. No. 21 Northwestern (9-3)
• The kickoff: 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2
• The weather: We’re looking at temps in the low 60s by kickoff with a high of 67. Lots of sunshine, no chance of rain.
• The line: After opening as the favorite and remaining so for several weeks, MSU is now a 2-point underdog.
This game is one full of intriguing matchups, and let’s start with what may be the most critical: MSU’s run game versus Northwestern’s run defense. The Bulldogs are averaging 140.7 rushing yards per game, while the Wildcats are allowing 122.8. As I noted in a recent story, MSU has struggled mightily to run the ball its last few games, averaging 55.5 yards in the four losses.
If the offensive line has fixed the issues that have plagued it of late, then LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson should be able to keep things moving. Of course, State might not need a huge rushing day, just an effective one. That’s because Northwestern isn’t very strong against the pass, and that’s a matchup that should be very favorable for MSU quarterback Tyler Russell and his band of veteran receivers.
I believe MSU’s offense will have a good day, and Northwestern has been known to give up some big plays. Could we have a shootout? Well, depends on how well MSU can handle the Northwestern run game. As much emphasis as the Wildcats put on the run – 62.5 percent of its plays are on the ground – it’s not a one-dimensional attack. Small but speedy tailback Venric Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter could give the Bulldogs fits, and Northwestern will also use Trevor Siemian, a more traditional passer. The offensive line is experienced, with three seniors.
MSU has had its issues with spread teams that can run, and the Texas A&M comparison has been made this week. There’s no Johnny Manziel on Northwestern’s offense, but the style is what’s given State as much trouble as anything. Remember the Troy game? The Trojans ran for 223 yards at 5.6 yards per rush.
Here’s another interesting matchup: MSU’s punt coverage unit versus Mark, who’s averaging 20.1 yards per return with two touchdowns this season. State leads the nation in punt coverage, allowing just 0.67 yards per return. Punter Baker Swedenburg is very consistent and is good at directional punting.
All things considered, this looks like an even matchup. I had to make my prediction early, and at the time MSU was favored by Vegas. I try not to go against Vegas. But as noted above, the line has flipped. I’m still sticking with my pick, though.
• The prediction: MSU 30, Northwestern 28.