Evanston, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - With a share of the Big Ten's Legends Division already theirs, the 13th-ranked Michigan State Spartans can earn a spot in the conference championship game if they come out victorious in this Saturday's clash at Northwestern.
The Spartans claimed a 41-28 win at Nebraska last Saturday, earning the team at least a share of the Legends Division title. Michigan State, which beat the Cornhuskers for the first time in eight tries, took advantage of five turnovers (one INT, four fumbles) to post its sixth straight win, all in conference, and improve to 9-1 overall. With a victory in this bout, MSU will reach the conference title tilt for the second time in the three years the game has been in existence -- the Spartans lost to Wisconsin in 2011, 42-39.
The Wildcats stood their ground against the visiting Michigan Wolverines last Saturday, the game going into three overtimes before the home team suffered the 27-19 setback. Northwestern, which had never played a game longer than two OTs, has lost six in a row, all in conference, since opening the season at 4-0. The 'Cats need to win their final two regular season games, this week against the Spartans and next week at Illinois, to be eligible for a bowl bid.
Michigan State leads the all-time series with Northwestern, 36-17, but it was the Wildcats who won the most recent meeting in a 23-20 final last November in East Lansing.
The Spartans were actually outgained by the Cornhuskers last weekend, 392-361, despite holding a near two-to-one edge in time of possession. Connor Cook threw for 193 yards and a score, and Tony Lippet led the receivers with four grabs for 67 yards. As for the Spartans' rushing attack, Jeremy Langford ran for 151 yards and three TDs.
Nebraska became the first team this season to rush for more than 100 yards (182) against the MSU defense. Kurtis Drummond paced the Spartans with 10 tackles, and he had both an interception and a forced fumble.
The MSU offense is averaging 30.9 points and 377.4 yards per game, utilizing the talents of guys like Langford (199 carries, 926 yards, 13 TDs), Cook (151- of-261, 1,683 yards, 14 TDs, three INTs), Macgarrett Kings, Jr. (31 rec., 354 yards, three TDs), Bennie Fowler (28 rec., 382 yards, five TDs) and Lippett (28 rec., 319 yards) to do the bulk of the damage.
Despite last week's hiccup against the Huskers, the Spartans still rank No. 1 in the country in total defense (228.4 ypg). Their rushing allowance (57.3 ypg) is also tops in the nation, their scoring yield (13.2 ppg) ranks fourth, and their effort against the pass (171.1 ypg) has them fifth. Drummond paces the unit with 65 tackles, and he has a pair of picks, while Denicos Allen checks in with 62 stops, 11.5 of which have for negative yardage, including five sacks. Max Bullough has 61 stops, while Shilique Calhoun has a stat line boasting 11 TFL, 6.5 sacks, one INT, four fumble recoveries and 17 QB hurries.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was asked about whether his top-rated defense was proven to be mortal after the job Nebraska did, particularly on the ground last week.
"We've played 10 games. We played tremendous defense for nine of those games, and then the one game that we maybe had a hitch in our gearing up would be the game we come up with four turnovers on defense (one on special teams), and I'll probably trade that out."
NU amassed 322 yards of total offense against Michigan in the triple-overtime thriller last Saturday, as Trevor Siemian completed 19-of-28 passes for 153 yards with no TDs and an INT, while Kain Colter led the ground attack with 78 yards and a score on 19 carries. Christian Jones caught five balls for 54 yards.
Kicker Jeff Budzien booted four field goals in the loss to Michigan, and had an extra point to finish with 13 points, and he now has 261 in his career -- just one shy of Brian Gowin's school record. Budzien is 18-of-20 on FG attempts this season.
Defensively, the Wildcats stood tall against the Wolverines, as they were credited with 10 TFL and five sacks. They did not record a turnover, but got double-digit stops from both Traveon Henry (career-high 13) and Damien Proby (11).
Behind 391.6 yards per contest, the Northwestern offense is putting up 27.1 ppg. The team's does a solid job running the ball (184.3 ypg, 16 TDs), although it offers a balanced attack as the pass accounts for 207.3 ypg and 11 scores. Between Trevon Green and Colter, they have run for 1,129 yards and 13 TDs, while Siemian has hit the mark on 57.9 percent of his throws for 1,502 yards with seven TDs and same number of interceptions. Colter has actually been more efficient in completing 77.5 percent of his 80 pass attempts for 571 yards, but he has only four TDs while being picked off three times. Tony Jones (43 rec., 527 yards, four TDs) and Christian Jones (38 rec., 443 yards, two TDs) highlight the receiving corps.
Despite leading the Big Ten in red zone offense (.974), NU has surrendered the most sacks of any team in the conference (35).
Foes are scoring nearly the same number of points the 'Cats do, as the 26.1 ppg allowed comes on the strength of 412.6 ypg. The pass defense has been the biggest issue, as the team ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in permitting 247.4 ypg and 16 aerial scores. NU does have the most picks of any team in the conference with 18, four of which have been returned for TDs.
Proby leads the team and ranks second in the league in tackles with 91, 57 of which have been unassisted, while Chi Chi Ariguzo is hot on his heels with 84 and 53, respectively. Ariguzo shares the team lead in interceptions (four) with Ibraheim Campbell, and Tyler Scott paces the club with six sacks and 10 TFL.
Even though it's been tough sledding for the Wildcats of late, Siemian knows that the only way to get through it is to keep plugging away.
"It's been rough. It's been rough for me and for everybody else in the locker room. It's not fun. We just have to keep working. I'm proud of everybody on the team. There is no quit in the locker room. Everybody is continuing to work. I'm proud of the guys and proud to be a part of the team."