If you looked at the Big Ten Divisional Rankings lately you will notice that the Michigan State Spartans are one win from their second Big Ten championship game in three seasons. However, the Spartans aren’t ready to celebrate just yet because they have to earn a nice road victory this Saturday against the Northwestern Wildcats.
Now you would think this should be an easy win for the Spartans considering the Northwestern hasn’t been the same team since they loss to Ohio State earlier this season and is currently on a six-game losing streak. However, I wouldn’t be so quick to doubt Northwestern as formidable opponent. They may have had their struggles this season but Northwestern is still trying to keep their bowl hopes alive and a win would help them do that. While there is no doubt that the Spartans are capable of winning this game, however, they will only do so if they follow certain keys to victory.
As always when talking about the Spartans, it all starts with the defense. Coming into this game the Spartans should look to contain the running game and force Northwestern to beat them through the air. While the Northwestern run game has had it’s up and downs this season, that is no reason to underestimate them. Last week against Nebraska the Spartan defense played well but they did allow running back Ameer Abdullah to gain 123 rushing yards while averaging five yards per carry. Obviously Abdullah is an exceptional back but the Spartans can’t afford that type of mishap in this game. Nonetheless, I still think the Spartans can contain the Northwestern run game seeing that they still only allow opponents to rush for 57 yards a game. However for them to do that, the front seven must control the line of scrimmage, get in the back field and make a point to wrap up and finish tackles. If the Spartans are able to do that and make Northwestern one-dimensional, they are in good shape.
Mainly because making Northwestern one-dimensional, allows to them to challenge Northwestern quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Semian to beat them. Last week both quarterbacks struggled against Michigan, Colter only passed for 26 yards while Semian passed for 153 yards. Nonetheless, the Spartans can expect that they will be better prepared so the Spartans must be ready as well. When dealing with Northwestern your dealing with two different quarterbacks, Siemian is the more passing quarterback for Northwestern, while Kain Colter is used more in a scrambling role. That means when the Spartans are on defense and they see Siemian or Colter in the game, they must be ready for the skill set that each quarterback brings to the field. So if they Spartans plan to have success, it all starts with the Spartan defensive line creating consistent pressure on Colter and Semian. If they are able to create pressure both quarterbacks have a tendency to force passes which is like giving candy to baby when it comes to the Spartans secondary.
When it comes to the Spartan secondary they must first find a way to make some big plays on the ball, especially forced passes but more importantly they must limit the big play and force this team to go through some quick three and outs. As always, it would be nice to see the Spartans defense create some turnovers, last week they turned four of Nebraska’s five turnovers into points which help them to take an early lead and keep control, so they should look to do so again. Northwestern has thrown 11 touchdown passes so far this season but they have also thrown 10 interceptions this season, so the Spartans must look for those opportunities.
Offensively, Spartans should look to run the ball early and hand the ball off to running back Jeremy Langford and let him do what he does best. So far this season he is averaging nearly five yards per carry and he currently leads the Big Ten with 13 rushing touchdowns. Running the ball will help to keep the offense balance and help move the chains. More importantly it will help the Spartans control the clock and time of possession. While some fans have noticed many aren’t aware that one of the key reasons the Spartans have had success this season offensively is because they do a great job of controlling time of possession. So again, the Spartans must continue doing that in this game and it all starts with the running game.
The next obvious key is quarterback Connor Cook who seems to get better every game. That’s not to say he is the next big thing in college football it’s just simply to say he is improving. As he did last week, he needs to continue taking what the defense gives him and be prepared to connect on the big throws. He also needs to continue spreading the ball around and using his multiple receivers and those receivers such as Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett need to be prepared to make the play and gain yards after the catch. If this Spartan offense can do that, then the Spartans are in good shape.
Most importantly, this Spartan offense must get off to an early start and build an early lead just like they did against Nebraska last week. The Spartans usually do a good job of winning the battle of field position and constantly getting in the red-zone and they need to do so again in this game, they just need to make sure they take advantage of all their opportunities and do their best to not leave any points on the field. Last but certainly not least, the Spartans must take care of the ball. They must play smart football just like they did a last week because you don’t want to give Northwestern any easy opportunities especially since their playing at home.
Overall, it should be a good game, I have said for the last few weeks that the Spartans have control of their destiny and that hasn’t changed. Now it’s just time for the Spartans to go out there and make their destiny come true and the way to do that is by earning this tough road victory against Northwestern.
Written by LBeasley, Sports Contributor for Radio One Detroit
Listen to LBeasley’s Radio Show, “Sports Talk with L-Beasley” every Mon, Wed & Fri from 6-8pm (ET) on LBeasley.com