A look at this week’s opponent…
The Wildcats come in with a 7-3 record, 3-3 in the B1G and looking for what could still be a great season. They have had three critical fourth quarter losses. The first two they responded the next week with wins. The third one was last week at Michigan. They are well coached, smart, and a very solid football team.
Dantonio enters the game with great respect for this Cat team. He said, “We’ve had great games with Northwestern throughout really the five years we’ve been here. Score may not indicate it at some point. I think last year the score was 31‑17 maybe. So it may seem like it wasn’t as close, but it was an extremely close game. 10‑3 right before the half. Then it opened up and closed up, that type of thing.”
He added, “But we’ve had great games with them. We’ve played them extremely hard. They’ve played us extremely hard. And I have a great respect for how they play the game. They play extremely hard. You need to understand that before you play them. Whenever you play Northwestern, you’re getting their best shot. There is no question.”
When MSU has the ball…
The Wildcats have a very solid run defense. They are sixth in the Big Ten. They are going to stack the box against MSU. Every time Pat Fitzgerald has led his Cats against the Spartans that has been his M.O. They are going to dare the Spartans’ Andrew Maxwell to beat them.
They won’t bring all out blitzes on every play, but they will bring a stacked box and back out of it to defend the pass. They have accumulated most of their sacks when bringing weak side blitzes and they will attack both of the MSU OTs in this game.
I look for Michigan State to go down the field and attack the Cats. Force them out of their base D which for this game will be some sneaky stacking of the box. Look for Northwestern when even in the nickel package to slip a DB down in the box, or when in a base set to bring an S up late.
If MSU can take advantage of those moments like Michigan did, they will score the points they need to win. This is the best Northwestern team that Dantonio has faced in his time with the Spartans.
The MSU offense is a pitiful 11th in the Big Ten (out of 12 schools) for total offense. Can they score enough points to win? Can MSU force the Cats to back off of their stop the run mantra or do they at least punish them with enough big plays to win?
Will MSU play for field goals or touchdowns? This year they have played for field goals and it has cost them dearly. In game #11, will they change? I had an AFC assistant GM this week tell me about the MSU offense, “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Obviously, it isn’t working and nothing is changing. What is the deal?” I agree.
When MSU is on defense…
They are the best in the Big Ten. They will do what they always do and sell out to stop the run. Here are my biggest concerns. William Gholston has struggled on the edge this year maintaining the edge. Can he own the corners? Northwestern is going to come right at him. They are going to attack him.
I have no doubts that this MSU defense will slow down the Cats’ offense. They won’t be prolific scorers like they have been all year. That doesn’t mean they won’t score. They are averaging 30 points per game and I don’t see them getting there.
MSU will play a lot of ‘base” D this week. They will blitz to stop the run, but here is the danger. NW QB Kain Colter loves to tuck it out of the pass and run. Do you want to blitz and allow him to run? Colter is not a big thrower, but he completes 70% of his passes. Granted, most are short high percentage throws, but they are still a concern. I look for MSU to play their standard base against Colter. But…
When the Cats go to Trevor Siemian as their QB the game changes, dramatically. He is also a good runner, but he is a very good passer. MSU will bring the heat heavy on him because if he doesn’t get pressured he will kill you. Siemian is a lot like Taylor Martinez in that if he gets time to pass he is deadly. Both QBs will play, both are a pick your poison.
Dantonio acknowledges that the two QB attack of the Cats is a tough task. “You always look at Northwestern; you’re looking at a well‑coached team that puts an emphasis on toughness, and a very fast‑pace on offense using a two quarterback system with Siemian and Colter. Doing a nice job with the option, the passing game as well, very exciting offense.”
Dantonio went on to elaborate about the differences with the Wildcat QBs. He said, “I think Colter creates very effectively. Even creates on the run. He may be running the option to my right here and cut back all the way to the left. So you have to be able to play things out the back door as well with him. You have to close down all the running lanes when he drops back to pass.”
He went on to say about Siemian, “I think Siemian is a guy that obviously throws the ball very effectively. They don’t seem to miss a beat when they come in there. They want to change things and take it to a different concept in terms of passing the football. He’s able to do that very effectively. He can also run with the ball when it’s given to him, and he’s shown that as well.”
Having both Colter and Siemian is tough. Dantonio said of the combination, “Which direction they go, they’ve gone a couple of different directions throughout the season. So it depends on what kind of game plan they have in mind when they come here to play Michigan State. But I think both guys have been successful, and they’ve sort of leaned on Colter here as of late. Your guess is as good as mine, so…”
The MSU defense has carried this team all year. ALL year. The OL is struggling. How many times does LeVeon Bell get hit in the backfield? Forget breakaway speed, the Spartan Nation is blessed to have him because breakaway speed guys would be getting throttled never getting to get up to speed with the way the OL is playing.
The Spartans are not playing for anything other than pride. Sure a bowl game is out there and I am not minimizing this. What I am saying is that it all comes down to pride. Do they suck it up? Not just the players folks, I am talking coaches also. Are they willing to do what they haven’t, to get where they want to go? This is the single biggest game for the MSU coaches since Penn State in 2007. For the first time since Dantonio arrived I think the team has underachieved. Even if they win the final two and the bowl game I believe that.
Will the team be ready? Will the game plan be flexible enough and broad enough to do what it takes and will they play for touchdowns or field goals?
I have no doubts that MSU can win this game. They have it all on the line. Their opponent has a lot on the line and good coaches and players also. Are the Spartans mentally drained? Has the incredible emotional roller coaster that has been 2012 carry over? Will the staff make adjustments? Will their style of play and offensive philosophy make adjustments?
Can this offense, with this philosophy, score enough points to win? That is the question. I have not seen that this year. They put up 27 against a pathetic IU defense and 10 against Michigan that gave up 31 last week to Northwestern.
I know this. Dantonio fears no one, but he respects Pat Fitzgerald and he knows what he is bringing to the High Cathedral of the Spartan Nation: Spartan Stadium on Saturday. Dantonio said, “I think the trademark of Pat’s teams are they play with a great amount of toughness and effort. And they’re always moving forward. They’re always playing for the next play. They’re very positive in terms of how they play. They play with toughness, which is like I said before, a trademark that we’ve tried to‑‑ I think we have shown here. But I have a lot of respect for how they play, and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
In the end, I think playing for field goals hurts the Spartans and they lose 24-20. No one will be happier than me to be wrong, but I just don’t see it this week.