The Michigan State Spartans and Northwestern Wildcats square off on Saturday in a sneaky-important Big Ten battle. The Wildcats (4-2, 2-2 BIg Ten) are tough to get a bead on each week in terms of what we're going to see out of them from an effort perspective, while the Spartans (6-1, 4-0) continue to win ugly.
Pat Fitzgerald's decision to play for overtime last week against Iowa and the subsequent Northwestern victory provided a reminder of just how good of an in-game coach he is.
On the other side of the field, Mark Dantonio has built one of the most resilient teams in college football, as the Spartans are on a four-game winning streak with an average margin of victory of 5.5 points.
Michigan State at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Michigan State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke's confidence
Lewerke's leadership, maturity and ability to take care of the football have been critical to the Spartans' current four-game winning streak. He's as efficient with the football as any quarterback in the Big Ten not named J.T. Barrett right now, and he brings a certain toughness to the table that the rest of his team feeds off of. If he can lead Michigan State on a couple of long drives that result in points early on, Northwestern could be in trouble.
2. Can the Spartans slow down Northwestern running back Justin Jackson?
Jackson — Northwestern's all-time leading rusher — has been the key to success for the Wildcats this season. Pat Fitzgerald's team is 4-0 when Jackson carries the ball 18 times or more, and he's gone for over 100 yards in three of those victories. His ability to avoid tackles in the open field and move the ball downhill keeps the Wildcats in good shape in tight games. The Spartans will be challenged to defend him, as Jackson has also shown to be a capable receiver out of the backfield.
3. Can Michigan State move the ball on the ground?
The power-running game is the bread and butter of the Spartans offense, with LJ Scott (above, right) leading the way in that department over the last couple of weeks. Lewerke needs the Spartans running game to be effective in order to open everything else up, but that's going to be a tall order against a Wildcats defense that has held two of the better rushing attacks in the Big Ten — Iowa and Maryland — under 90 yards in the last two weeks. If Michigan State can't move the ball better than the Hawkeyes did against the Wildcats a week ago, the final outcome could mirror the score in that game.
These are two teams who play very similar styles, led by two of the very best coaches in the Big Ten. Both teams feature sound rushing attacks, solid leaders at quarterback and stingy defensive play. In the end, the old cliche of "who wants it more" will decide this one. The Spartans have been winning ugly all year, and right now it appears they have just a little more to play for. I like Michigan State to come out on top in a low-scoring tilt.
Prediction: Michigan State 20, Northwestern 16
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also covers the Big Ten for Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa's SB Nation blog. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.