As Michigan State looks to string together a trio of victories by beating Northwestern this weekend, the biggest question heading into the contest is whether or not the Spartan defense will be able to slow down a dangerous Northwestern spread attack.
First a look at the stats. MSU ranks in the bottom half of Big Ten teams in pass defense, allowing 227 yards per game. Central Michigan, with its own spread offense, shredded the MSU â€˜Dâ€™ for 352 yards through the air. Notre Dame put up 304 yards the next week, but MSUâ€™s opponentsâ€™ passing games have cooled each week since.
Northwestern enters the game second in the Big Ten in passing offense (just ahead of MSU) with 267 yards per game. The Wildcats threw all over Syracuse for over 400 yards in week three, they threw for over 300 yards the following week, but have dropped off since, recording 224 yards against lowly Purdue and just 191 against the MACâ€™s Miami.
The trends for both teams appear to favor a strong Spartan performance on defense, and that is exactly what this team needs after the devastating injury to running back Glen Winston and the Spartansâ€™ banged up quarterback rotation. Getting the Wildcat offense off the field quickly and repeatedly, keeping that passing attack at bay, which can dink and dunk you close to death before slicing you wide open with a big play, is going to be an important component to a potential Spartan victory this weekend.
The Spartan secondary, which had its troubles earlier this season, seems to be playing much better, but the real key is going to be getting pressure from the front seven. Blitz, blitz, blitz may be in the works, but choosing your spots on defense, something defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi doesnâ€™t get enough credit for, is an art that reveals itself only in the midst of a game. Choose right, and you get a drive-ending sack or critical turnover; choose wrong and youâ€™ve left one of your DBâ€™s on an island for a potential big play.
Where MSU can really shine, though, is by making Northwestern completely one dimensional. The Wildcats rank ninth in the Big Ten with 123 yards rushing per game. MSU is third in the conference in rushing â€˜Dâ€™, allowing just over 100 yards per contest.
Yes, CMU was pretty one dimensional with only 66 yards on the ground, but football is often a game of percentages. The Chips beat the odds that miserable Saturday, committing only one turnover. Thatâ€™s pretty amazing for a team that put the ball in the air 47 times.
If Northwestern has the same type of game plan as CMU, this Spartan defense is much more mature than it was in week two, and the Wildcats will likely not be so fortunate. Tipped passes, poor reads by the QB, sacks that turn into fumbles and a half dozen other perils await teams that drop back to pass the ball over and over and over again. This is why MSUâ€™s balanced pro style offense is so appealing to many coaches â€” it reduces the chances an offense has to put its own defense in a hole.
If the Spartan defense makes Northwestern one dimensional, look for this resurgent squad to make the most of its opportunities to do its own damage. This defense is desperate for a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown or some other game-changing play. And the way this squad has responded after taking its lumps earlier this season, this band of Spartans is foaming at the mouth for an opportunity to tell a nicked up MSU offense, â€˜hey guys, relax, we got this one covered.â€™