GAME NOTES: The eighth-ranked Michigan State Spartans put their unblemished record on the line this Saturday, as they head to Evanston, Illinois for a Big Ten Conference clash with the Northwestern Wildcats.
The Spartans started slow, but turned it on in the second half of their Homecoming clash with Illinois last week, winning in a 26-6 final. As a result, Michigan State is 7-0 for the first time since 1966 and currently sits atop the Big Ten with a 3-0 conference mark.
This is the first of two straight road games for MSU, and the team will close out the regular season with three of its final five bouts away from home.
As for Northwestern, it was idle last weekend after suffering its first regular-season loss in nearly a year at home to Purdue the previous week. The Wildcats had won their first five games, including a 29-28 verdict over Minnesota in their initial conference clash of the season.
Following this contest, NU hits the road for back-to-back games against Indiana and Penn State. The 'Cats have won five straight away from home and a Big Ten-best 10 road games dating back to the start of the 2008 season.
Michigan State owns a 34-16 edge in the all-time series with Northwestern, and the Spartans have won the last two meetings.
Michigan State came into last week's game against Illinois averaging 225 rushing ypg, but produced just 93 yards on 31 carries against the Illini. The Spartans, who had been averaging a whopping 473.2 total ypg entering the clash, were limited to 294 yards -- the first time they had been held below 350 yards this season. QB Kirk Cousins threw for 201 yards and one TD, a 48- yard strike to WR B.J. Cunningham that gave the Spartans a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Spartans feature a pair of talented RBs, as Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell have combined for 1,268 yards and 14 TDs. Cousins has 11 TD passes against only four INTs, and five different receivers have logged double-digit catches to this point in the season.
Greg Jones, who is the Spartans' season leader in total tackles with 60, paced the MSU defense with 14 tackles last week, helping hold the Illini to 255 yards of total offense. PK Dan Conroy booted a career-best four FGs and is a perfect 13-of-13 on the year.
Through seven games, the Spartans are giving up just 16.6 ppg with opponents rushing for 111.7 ypg and passing for 213.3 ypg. Foes have scored just four TDs on the ground, and Michigan State has come up with 18 turnovers, 12 of which have been INTs.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio, who has battled through a ton of personal adversity this year, liked the way his team responded last week after such a slow start, "Good tough football game today. I thought Illinois came to play. Our football team came out the second half and played extremely well, I felt. Turnovers were the difference, really, and special teams today - opportunistic offense."
As mentioned, Northwestern suffered its first loss of the season two weeks ago against Purdue, and coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke recently about what the bye week meant to his team following such a disappointment, "Anybody can win on any given Saturday. From a players' perspective, it gives them a good sense of where the league is at. And then, most importantly, they talked about how hungry they are to get back out and practice and play."
The Wildcats, who average 27.7 ppg and 425.7 total ypg this season, are led by QB Dan Persa, who leads the nation in completion percentage (.780), and is among the Big Ten leaders in nearly every QB statistical category. He has thrown 10 TD passes against only two INTs, and he averages 277.2 passing ypg. Persa is also NU's leading rusher with 295 yards, and he has three of the team's 10 rushing TDs.
Jeremy Ebert is one of the league's top pass catchers, having hauled in 35 balls for 560 yards and five TDs through the first six games, while a total of six players have double-digits receptions on the year.
Northwestern actually outgained Purdue, 389-279 two weeks ago, and gained 23 first downs to the Boilermakers' 13. Persa threw for 305 yards, but did not have a TD pass, and Ebert was clearly his favorite target once again, catching 11 balls for 124 yards.
Coach Fitzgerald, while certainly not pleased with the outcome, liked the way Persa performed, "He's been very efficient and runs our offense well. I thought at times today, that collectively as an offense, that we could have executed a little bit better. The quarterback gets all the credit with a win, but obviously gets analyzed when things don't go their way. I thought Danny played pretty well today."
Defensively, the Wildcats are giving up 18.3 ppg this season, with foes running the ball for 140.5 ypg and eight TDs, while throwing it for 216.3 ypg with six scores. Brian Peters is the team's leading tackler with 44 stops, while Vince Browne has five of the team's 10 sacks and Quentin Davie has three of its 10 INTs.
The 'Cats held Purdue to just 47 net passing yards two weeks ago, but the Boilermakers churned out 232 yards on the ground. Nate Williams logged a team- high 11 tackles, but only one turnover and no sacks proved detrimental to the overall cause.
The Wildcats will need to find some semblance of a run game to beat the better teams in the Big Ten, and it can't be Persa alone doing the job. Expect the home team to play hard from start to finish, but for the Spartans to prevail on the strength of another solid effort on both sides of the ball.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Michigan State 31, Northwestern 20