Who Has The Edge

The Wildcat seniors are looking to leave Ryan Field with one more win. PurpleWildcats.com looks at Northwestern and Michigan State to see which team has the edge in Saturday's matchup.

When Michigan State Has the Ball:

With the exception of games at Nebraska and Ohio State, Michigan State's offense has rolled this season behind the play of senior quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Cousins has thrown for over 2,500 yards this season with 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He's become a much more consistent player this season and has made up for the lack of a strong rushing game.

The Spartans' running backs—Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker—have been a disappointment this year after coming into the season as one of the most highly-touted rushing duos in the conference. They have rushed for just 708 and 577 yards, respectively. Bell has eclipsed his yardage from last season, but Baker's production has significantly decreased after rushing for 1,200 yards in 2010.

However, the passing game has stepped up in the running game's absence, as Cousins has found good weapons in receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Cunningham has 1005 yards receiving, including seven touchdowns, and is averaging 16.5 yards-per-catch.

The Spartans will undoubtedly try to attack the Wildcats' secondary, which was awful early in the season, but has improved over the last three games.

The Cats had a solid gameplan against Nebraska—they allowed quarterback Taylor Martinez to complete short passes, but didn't allow anything over the top. That will be important again, as MSU has a knack for big plays, especially deep passes to Cunningham.

If the secondary doesn't have breakdowns in deep coverage, NU will be able to stay in the game. But if there are the communication failures that the Cats experience early in the season, this could be another long day for NU defense.

Edge: Michigan State

When Northwestern Has the Ball:

This will be a strength vs. strength matchup, as Northwestern's rolling offense will take on a Michigan State defense that ranks No. 5 in the country in scoring defense.

Dan Persa seems to have finally returned to his 2010 form and backup quarterback Kain Colter has been a star at every offensive skill position this year.

Persa and wide receiver Jeremy Ebert have been an impressive combination all season, but Persa has started to spread the ball around to other receivers as well, including Colter, Drake Dunsmore and Demetrius Fields.

The Cats' running game was been a weak spot this season—Colter leads the team with 571 rushing yards—but senior running back Jacob Schmidt has started to improve over the last month and is averaging 4.8 yard-per-carry.

The MSU defense has stuffed some bad offenses, and while it has been solid, it has given up over 20 points five times.

This is the most dynamic offense the Spartans have seen all season, so while NU won't find the same success that it did against Rice or Indiana, it should still be able to move the ball against the MSU defense.

Edge: Northwestern

Special Teams

Northwestern's return game has started to take shape over the past month, with Venric Mark stepping up as the top return man—he had two big returns against Minnesota.

However, NU's kicking game has struggled. Last week, coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for it on fourth-and-seven instead of kick a short field goal—that shows how little confidence he has in kicker Jeff Budzien. He's just five-for-nine on the season.

Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy hasn't been outstanding—he's 13-for-18—but he has recorded two 50-yarders this season.

With the game on the line, it's a lot easier to trust Conroy to come up clutch than it is to trust Budzien, which gives the Spartans the edge.

Edge: Michigan State

Coaching

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio will likely be a candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors this season, leading the Spartans to 9-2 so far after an 11-2 campaign last year.

The work of the MSU staff has been impressive, but the work of Fitzgerald and Northwestern's staff over the past month has been arguably even better.

The Cats simplified the defense and worked on better communication to help fill gaps in the secondary and the tackling from the defensive front seven has improved dramatically. And just as it has been the past few years, the offensive gameplan is one of the most efficient in the Big Ten.

More importantly, Fitzgerald and company motivated a 2-5 team to come up with four straight wins, including an upset at Nebraska, and get to bowl eligibility.

That's why Fitzgerald is one of the most sought-after young coaches in college football and that's why he can consistently get his players to overachieve year after year.

Edge: Northwestern

Intangibles

Northwestern is bowl eligible for the fifth straight year, but that doesn't matter to Fitzgerald. He told reporters after the Minnesota game last week that he won't even be taking 24 hours to enjoy the win—he started preparing for Michigan State right away.

A seventh win ensures a bowl game, likely means a better bowl destination and gives the Cats momentum heading into the postseason. There is still a lot to play for, and Fitzgerald knows it.

Michigan State has already wrapped up the Legends Division title and will be heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game no matter what happens on Saturday, and while Dantonio says his players will still be motivated, the sense of urgency of the Cats will be much higher.

Edge: Northwestern

Prediction

On paper, Michigan State should win this game. It's the Legends Division champion and it simply has more talent than Northwestern.

If the NU secondary plays like it did at the beginning of the year, Kirk Cousins will pick it apart, but it has improved greatly over the last month, especially at limiting big plays, which will be essential against MSU.

The Spartans' defense is good, but this is the most dynamic offense it has seen all season—unlike Michigan, NU can throw the ball—and that could give the Cats a big advantage.

Expect that offensive advantage and a strong showing from the secondary to propel the Cats to their fifth straight victory and a 7-5 record heading into the postseason.

Score: Northwestern 31, Michigan State 27


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