Which Team Will Finish? Painting Northwestern vs Michigan State By The Numbers

How will the ‘Cats rebound THIS time? What has an extra week off after the Nebraska loss meant to Sparty? Will Michigan State go winless in the B1G at home? Will NU use the criticism of not closing to prove to everyone they can? So many questions and intriguing parallels between Northwestern and Michigan State. The ‘Cats as we know are in the winner’s circle for the 2012 “most legit we should be undefeated” team that is not. Michigan State has lost four games by a combined ten points. Both teams have had trends of being way too one dimensional, specifically rushing, yet have had the best opponents on the schedule on the ropes. Odds are this game will come down to the 4th quarter and one team will finally get to close out with a much needed “w”. Who wants it more? Who will execute when the game is on the line? What cat and mouse games will go on between coaches? Let’s explore and start with the facts.

Northwestern Offense VS Michigan State Offense

Offense Passing Rushing Total Offense Scoring Offense 3rd Down Conv. Red Zone Offense
Northwestern  164.9 ypg  238.6 ypg 403.5 ypg  30.5 ppg 69/149 46.3% 36/40( 19rush, 6 pass TD, 11 FG) 90%
Michigan St.  218.5 ypg  141.9 ypg 360.4 ypg 19.7 ppg 64/165 38.8 % 29/33 ( 11rush, 7pass TD, 15FG) 88%

The ‘Cats offense at quick glance is far more productive than Michigan State in every category not named “passing offense”. Then again, if you fill in the stats for any B1G team they’ll all dwarf the Spartans, well, spartan productivity. As explosive as this senior-laden team was last year with the killer offense led by veteran Kirk Cousins as well as a deadly triumverate of WRs, they are in the rebuild mode we expected to be in this year. The fact our two game differential in overall record and conference record of NU looking to be in a better position, a look when we get to the other side of the ball will show you that this is indeed a B1G championship level team on defense. Spartan fans are equally as frustrated as NU fans are, and perhaps with even more merit. The top-rated conference defense doesn’t ask much, but Michigan State simply can’t score.

Consider this. With the lone exception of a highly overrated third down conversion stat (for what it’s worth, Illinois is #1 in this category in the B1G), Michigan State is in the bottom half of EVERY other category in the country. Go ahead, try me. Rushing offense? Don’t be fooled by the B1G leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell, being a member of this offense – Sparty’s 141 ypg on the ground is 78th in the FBS and 8th in the conference. The problem clearly isn’t Bell, it is that he is almost every ounce of their rushing offense. The young, struggling QB Andrew Maxwell? Well, he’s produced more yards than Northwestern, but the 218 ypg in the air is 74th in FBS, but 4th in the passing challenged B1G. When you start adding it up, it gets worse. Michigan State stands at 94th in total offense and 9th in the B1G, hardly the word association you have with Mark Dantonio and his teams. Ultimately though is it’s about points on the scoreboard and there isn’t a team in the country with a greater disparity between their ability to keep teams off the scoreboard AND the futility of putting points ON the scoreboard. Sparty musters only 19 ppg, which ranks 108th in the country and is a pathetic 11th in the B1G. Wow. It just doesn’t add up. They’ve got one of the best RBs in the backfield, a stud TE and some up and coming wideouts.

Andrew Maxwell struggled mightily early and despite opponents stuffing the box and challenging MSU to beat them through the air, Bell has been able to still get his yards. Yet, where is this offense falling apart? ‘Cat killer Bennie Fowler still roams the backfield. Chris Treadwell is an anchor on the left side of the line. Aaron Burbridge has been as expected as an instant impact freshman WR.  When you watch this team on offense, everything looks out of sync. They play tight and calculated. They lack the intangible of “flow” and can seem to sustain drives. As a Wildcat fan you feel pretty good about our chances when you look up and down this side of the ball. Their strengths match-up with our strengths and our weaknesses align with their weaknesses.

Northwestern continues its identity overhaul on offense regardless of who we play. Last week we faced the #7 total defense in Michigan and simply ran it down their throats, bouncing them 4 spots to #11 in total defense after putting up 431 yards, primarily on the ground. Well, the 30.5 ppg, which is an upper tier 4th in the conference is only 52nd nationally. If we were to get our average in this game, you’d LOVE the odds, but no one, literally NO ONE has scored 30 on them ALL SEASON. The ‘Cats are also a study in extremes, however not between units, but within the same unit. On one hand we’re dead last in passing and an embarassing 110th nationally in the aerial attack. Yet, the don’t you dare call us dink and dunk rushing machine is now cranked up to the 14th best ground game in the country and third in the Big Ten. It shouldn’t surprise you that adds up to an average offense, 60th nationally and 5th in the B1G with our 403 ypg, or put another way 115 MORE per game then MSU averages giving up (288 ypg).  Yikes. Insert cliched something’s gotta give line here. For NU, we’ve seen it is all about moving the chains early to get our mojo going. Kain Colter did it again last week and it really sparked us, and once we get in to the red zone we’re money.  Our red zone efficiency is now all the way up to 12th nationally and 2nd in the B1G. We’ve been great of late on third down conversions and have greatly improved on this during the season to get to 25 nationally and 2nd in conference with our 90%, heavily slanted rushing TD, payoff where it counts.

The one stat that isn’t illuminated? The 4th quarter. Consider this sobering thought. Northwestern has not outscored a B1G opponent yet this season. Gulp. The scoring stats in 4th quarter play, aside from the Vanderbilt game are downright awful. The one headscratcher? MSU’s productivity in the red zone is solid, well better than solid, 22nd nationally to be exact. Despite their inability to move the rock, when they get to the red zone they convert almost as well (88%) as we do (90%).

Northwestern Defense vs Michigan State Defense

Defense Passing Rushing Total Defense Scoring Defense Sacks/TFLs 3rd Down Defense
Northwestern  273.8 ypg  122.5 ypg 396.3 ypg  23.9 ppg  2.0pg/5.0 pg 61/150 40.7 %
Michigan St.  174.6 ypg  113.4 ypg 288.0 ypg  16.3 ppg   1.3pg/6.4pg 46/137 31.3 %

These are the stats that make you sit upright in you seat if you’re a Northwestern fan. Michigan State is in my opinion an elite defense, frankfully at a different level than any team we’ve faced to date. Pat Narduzzi, their defensive coordinator has been a bedrock of the Dantonio era and their success starts with a stellar front seven with uber athletic LBs that can penetrate on blitzes and drop back to defend the pass. Max Bullough is this year’s Eric Gordon, if you will. They’ve got a NFL first rounder in William Gholston at DE, the Big Ten’s bad boy and they’ve got a pair of lethal DBs with Johnny Adams and Isaiah Lewis.

You look at the schedule and you really see their defense come to life. They are 2-4 in conference with all four losses combining for just 10 points, a flip-flop for Dantonio who prior to this year was 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or less.  Just look at their final scores – loss to Ohio State 17-16, lost vs Iowa 19-16 2 OT, lost at Michigan w/o giving up a TD 12-9, lost to Nebraska 28-24.  They do of course have a win at Wisconsin which took them OT to pull out and they still only scored 16 points, yet won 16-13.  Their biggest offensive outburst in B1G play was a huge comeback at Indiana when they trailed by 17 yet poured it on to squeak out a 31-27 win.  Dantonio’s loss to Nebraska, a game that Michigan State had the Huskers on the ropes, was his first November loss since 2009.  Now Michigan State is fighting for their bowl life after back-to-back double digit win seasons (11) and a Big Ten Championship appearance.  I thought this team might roll over after their tough breaks, but they’ve been resilient and Northwestern rolls in to town on senior day, where MSU is trying to avoid going winless at home in the B1G for the first time since Dantonio’s first year at the helm.

The rankings speak volumes about the Spartan defense. Against the pass, MSU is 13th in the country and 4th in the B1G. Against the run, the key match-up in this game, MSU is 20th nationally and 3rd in the B1G barely ahead of NU.  They boast the conference’s #1 total defense and #1 scoring defense and rank 7th and 11th nationally in those respective categories. They are particularly stingy on 3rd down as they rank 17th nationally and second in the B1G, but caution on this stat, Illinois is tops in the B1G for what it’s worth. The Spartans sack total is down from recent years bigtime as they rank a surprising 110th nationally in that category and 10th in the B1G. However, don’t be fooled, they get a ton of penetration and pressure as evidenced by their Tackles For Loss which is second best in the B1G and 35th nationally. In essence, this is the same suffocating defense that we’ve come to expect from Michigan State and its been a major reason we have lost four straight to Sparty with our last win being the 2007 OT shootout in East Lansing.

On the flip side, there are only two stats that Mike Hankwitz would really want to even bring in to his performance review. Obviously, NU’s rushing defense is greatly improved and is ranked 24th nationally and 4th in the B1G, but that is aided in part by the fact our pass defense has been so generous that teams are passing much more against us. The rush “D” has no doubt improved immensely, but the stat is a little misleading. The other one would be scoring defense as our 24 ppg-ish average is 41st in the country, but only 7th in the B1G. After that it is average to below average city. You know we’re dead last in the conference in passing and 105th nationally. Our total defense is 62nd nationally and 10th in the B1G. Our sack total has gone from the embarassing in 2011 to average in 2012 as we are 53rd nationally and 6th in the B1G in that category. Our TFLs are nothing to brag about – 84th nationally and 10th in the conference. Overall, a defense, that on paper, will hardly keep an OC up at night. Yet, Michigan State has been so scoring challenged it plays again to the intrigue of this match-up.

The intangible here is which team will finish? Both have sufferred immensely from knockout punch-itis, having had several frontrunner teams on the ropes, seemingly with the game in hand and then letting it slip away in the final drive.  It will be fascinating to see, if this plays out like one would expect – a game coming down to the final possession – who steps up and grabs a momentum game. A loss for the ‘Cats and the season would be rationally deemed a failure, based on the weakness of the conference, regardless of whether we beat Illinois or not. A win, and dare I say it would be the most solid of the season, despite Sparty’s mediocre record? I believe the ‘Cats will need to beat Sparty, Illinois AND a bowl game to have the fan base walk away content with the 2012 season at this point. A very achievable task.  For Michigan State, the concept of going 9 wins to 11 wins to 11 wins to potentially sub .500 is an embarassment. You can bet they’ll be a ton of empty seats in Spartan Stadium on Saturday as the turnout for the rain-soaked Iowa game was atrocioius. Should Sparty lose on senior day to NU, you can bet the folks that were so adamant that Michigan State was to forever be an upper tier team will be rethinking what happenned.

So, what do you think? Will Michigan State’s stout defense cause us to reevaluate our gameplan and use of Kain and Trevor? Will we say “we’re bringing our game against yours and game on”? If so, it will be fascinating to see what the Kain and Venric show can do against one of the nation’s premiere defenses.  Conversely, will MSU try to prove they can beat us with Le’Veon Bell, despite the glaring disparity between our rush defense strength and our pass defense weakness? I expect to see a heavy dose of Dion Sims on Saturday as he presents huge match-up challenges for us. What do you expect to see now that you know the numbers?


  • DarkSide

    ‘What is best in life?’
    ‘To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.’
    Annihilate Sparty.
    Leave NO DOUBT.
    GO CATS!!

  • zeek

    If we can put up at least 3 touchdowns on them, we should be able to win this.

    That’s the question though; their defense will probably be as tough to have long, steady drives on as Penn State and Nebraska.

    We’ll need “big plays” like we got in those games to put up easy points.

    If we don’t get the random 50 yard scoring play, this will be a game in the trenches, and most likely a 50-50 kind of game.

    • I tend to agree, but I’d dispute the randomness of any of our plays. Our 50-yard plays have been very intentional and the result of extremely good o-line blocking and a 2013 Heisman candidate at RB.

  • Frank

    If we play with the same intensity we had in the Michigan game, we win. We’re getting better weekly.
    However, if we continue to play a prevent defense in long yardage situations against QB’s who aren’t all that accurate instead of pressuring them, the players’ efforts may again be negated and the outcome may be like last week’s.

  • Fanaticat

    I still like our chances against their D. Michigan’s D is similarly ranked, and we put up the highest point total of the year against them except Alabama, and the highest yard total tied with Alabama. We also put up the most passing TDs (3) and 3rd highest passing yards on their #1 ranked pass D despite not even wanting to pass the ball that much.
    On D the gameplan should simply be to use our run D strength to stop Bell, and force them to convert with passing.

  • Chasmo

    The Cats have proven that they are physically capable of keeping up with PSU, Nebraska, and Michigan but not psychologically capable of beating them.
    MSU is not better than any of those three squads but it is a talented team and NU has had difficulty in the fourth quarter against any good team it has played.
    Can Fitz and the boys this week improve their mental toughness, stay aggressive down the stretch, and play to win?
    Let’s hope for the best.

  • JoeCat

    Has anyone attended a game at Spartan Stadium? I’m interested in driving up Friday night and going to the game on Saturday but have never been to the stadium. Can someone provide some details, pros/cons or whatever?


    • CatAttack

      In my opinion, they are the worst fans to interact with as a visitor.

  • nwildcat

    C’mon guys, the Cats are going to lose this game. We all hate Sparty, but that’s not going to be enough. They’ve got a better coach and a better defense. What will hurt (again) is that it will be close. Fitz and his players are simply not at a level to win big games like this. I fear for Colter and Mark trying to do too much and getting injured–we’ll need them to beat an Illini team that would love to save a pathetic season by beating us. We’ll be better next year, yet the schedule will be harder. 6-6 and 7-5 seasons will become standard fare under this current situation. Hey, its a step up for those of us that can still remember the distant past! Go Cats!