We've come down to the final weeks of the 2020 Big Ten season. And this Saturday, we'll have a grinder on tap as the No. 8 Northwestern Wildcats (5-0) travel to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans (1-3). The Wildcats are on the brink of their second Big Ten West title in three years after last week's 17-7 win over Wisconsin. Northwestern also is 5-0 for the first time since 2015.
The Spartans' game against Maryland was canceled last week when Terrapins head coach Mike Locksley tested positive for COVID-19. So they'll have to wait a little longer to try and break their two-game losing streak. MSU previously lost to Iowa and Indiana by the combined score of 73-7 after defeating Michigan in their second game of the season. The Spartans have struggled against Northwestern in recent years, especially at home. So they'll have their work cut out for them this weekend.
No. 8 Northwestern at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -12.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Peyton Ramsey was on point again last weekend, despite the challenge that Wisconsin's defense presented. He completed 23 of his 44 pass attempts for 203 yards and two touchdowns. It was Ramsey's third 200-yard passing game of the season and his third straight multi-touchdown game. Ramsey is still in the top 10 of the Big Ten in completion rate (61.9 percent), passing yards (926), passer rating (124.0), and completions (96).
One thing that the Badgers did do successfully was limit the Wildcats' ground game, holding NU to just 24 yards and 1.0 yards per carry. Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser have only rushed for a combined 142 yards against Michigan State in their careers, so the Spartans will look to limit the Cats' opportunities on the ground. MSU's defense has had its struggles this season, as the Spartans are giving up 391.5 yards and 33.8 points per game.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Rocky Lombardi heads the Spartan offense this season. He's completed 57.1 percent of his throws for 890 yards and six touchdowns. He's averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, and he ranks ninth in the Big Ten in passer rating (124.8). He's the latest in the line of pro-style pocket passers that the Spartans have employed over the last several seasons. Lombardi's favorite downfield targets are wide receivers Jalen Nailor (13 receptions, 280 yards, 1 touchdown, 21.5 ypc), Ricky White (10, 223, 1, 22.3), and Jayden Reed (20, 216, 2, 10.8).
MSU also has a one-two punch in the backfield. Running backs Jordon Simmons and Connor Heyward have combined for 230 yards on 70 attempts. The one thing they haven't done, however, is score a rushing touchdown. And getting that against Northwestern will be easier said than done, as the Wildcats' rush defense ranks 13th in the nation (100.6 ypg).
Northwestern also has the country's fourth-best scoring defense (12.6 ppg), and the Wildcats are second in the Big Ten in both total defense (314.6 ypg) and pass defense (214.0 ypg). They've also recorded 11 interceptions and 10 sacks. But the Spartans are capable of moving the ball, averaging 323.8 yards per contest.
The Spartans lead this all-time series 38-20. But the Wildcats have won each of the last three games at Spartan Stadium by a combined score of 106-79. A win on Saturday would give NU four straight wins in East Lansing for the first time in school history. MSU did dominate Northwestern in last year's game in Evanston 31-10. But unless Michigan State can poke holes in this Wildcat defense, Northwestern will make history.
Prediction: Northwestern 21, Michigan State 13
Podcast: Week 13 Preview and Predictions + Interview with Kirk Herbstreit
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)