EAST LANSING - The college bowl season doesn't officially begin until next month but Michigan State and Northwestern will get an early jump on the bowl party when they play Saturday in what could easily be tabbed as the Heartbreak Bowl.
With six losses between the two schools by margins of seven points or less, with the Spartans (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) being the proud owners of four setbacks totaling 10 points, both teams will enter Saturday's noon contest (ESPN2) at Spartan Stadium looking for some redemption after their last losses.
In the Spartans last loss to Nebraska, MSU couldn't overcome a couple of controversial calls and fell to the Cornhuskers, surrendering a lead late in a 28-24 loss.
The Wildcats (7-3, 3-3) had Michigan all but beat in their last outing before folding late and allowing the Wolverines to escape with a 38-31 decision in overtime.
While the Wildcats come into Spartan Stadium, where MSU will honor its 13 seniors prior to kickoff, in better shape for a bowl bid, they would still like a victory to upgrade the team's bowl selection.
The Spartans, on the other hand, are playing desperate and need at least one win in their final two contests to even become bowl eligible. Two wins to close out the Big Ten season could mean the difference between a late December bowl bid or a Jan. 1 invite.
One thing that should work in MSU's favor is the bye week they had before this game.
MSU, which leads the overall series with Northwestern, 36-16, used that extra week to get some key contributors healthy and further solidify the chemistry of an offensive line that has been decimated by injuries all season long.
"We had an advantage in that respect, and I think we also healed up,'' MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "It gave us an opportunity to step back away from the (Nebraska) game, which I think we needed to do, and refocus and regenerate our enthusiasm for this week. So we'll be ready to play.''
The Spartans will enter Saturday's contest with an o-line that has now practiced together for more than two weeks for the first time since the early part of the season as they try and push their advantage in games played in East Lansing versus Northwestern to 19-6.
MSU's offensive line could be key component in a contest where the Spartans should have some added opportunities to score against a Northwestern defense that has shown a propensity give up big points.
The Wildcats have given up 29 or more points in five games this season, winning two of those games by scoring 42 or more points.
Leading the way for an offense that has shown the ability to play spread formation fast or more deliberate, the Wildcats have proven to be tempo changers at the drop of a down.
With a dual quarterback system that utilizes the dual threat qualities of junior Kain Colter and pinpoint passing of sophomore Trevor Siemian, the Wildcat's are averaging 30.5 points a contest.
While Siemian leads the passing game with 1,018 yards and six touchdowns against just one interception, the dynamic that Colter has thrown for 613 yards and four scores and run for 704 yards and a team-leading 11 touchdowns.
"When you look at them right now, 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,'' Dantonio said. "(They do) a nice job with the option (and) the passing game.
"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. And I think Siemian is a guy that obviously throws the ball very effectively. They don't seem to miss a beat when (he comes) in there. They want to change things and take it to a different concept in terms of passing the football and he's able to do that very effectively. He can also run with the ball when it's given to him.''
MSU's defense, which is surrendering 16.3 points is going to severely tested by an offense that averages 402 yards a game and is powered by the versatility and big play ability of junior running back Venric Mark.
Mark is a Doak Walker Award candidate, an honor bestowed on the nation's top tailback, and is an all-purpose yards nightmare for opposing teams.
Entering Saturday's contest, the Houston native leads the Big Ten and is ranked 6th nationally in all-purpose yards per game at 191.7. Additionally, he has posted seven 100-yard rushing outings, the most by any player in the Big Ten, and ranks No. 1 nationally in punt return average at 21.6 yards a return.
"Great punt returner, great kick returner, two touchdowns on punt returns this year. He's a great guy that can catch the ball down the field,'' Dantonio said. "He can run the ball in the zone play and run the ball in the option. He's elusive and he's got a next gear. He's smaller in size, but he packs a punch. He runs powerfully and can break tackles.''
Northwestern's top pass catcher is senior Demetrius Fields but he only has 27 catches for 237 yards and one score, proving that Colter and Mark do most of the scoring for a Wildcats' team that has scored 25 rushing touchdowns and scores at a 90 percent clip once they get inside the red zone.
Northwestern's offense does this all behind a line that is led by 300-plus pound senior guards Neal Dieters and Brian Mulroe.
The task of bottling up Mark and Northwestern's offense will fall to an MSU defense that is led by junior linebacker Max Bullough's 87 tackles, which includes 10 for loss.
MSU's d-line led by senior Anthony Rashad White and defensive ends Will Gholston and Marcus Rush must create push at the line of scrimmage so the Spartans linebackers can help keep Colter and Mark from breaking off big gains.
The Wildcats are rolling up 237.6 rushing yards a game and MSU will need to keep that number under 200 if they want to have any chance of getting the victory they need to become bowl eligible.
Of course, it would help if MSU's offense could hit a high note on Saturday.
Behind junior Andrew Maxwell's 2,138 yards and 10 TDs and junior running back Le'Veon Bell's 1,249 rush yards and 11 TDs, the Spartans have enough firepower to put up some points, especially when you factor in a wide receiver group that has shown steady improvement.
Although led by sophomore wideout Keith Mumphery's 34 catches for 427 yards and one TD, MSU's other receiving options have come on stronger of late with junior Bennie Fowler, sophomore Tony Lippett and freshman Aaron Burbridge all totaling 22 or more catches for an 11 yards and up average per catch.
The Wildcats' defense is led by junior middle linebacker Damien Proby's 95 stops, including 4.5 for loss, and although, as a unit Northwestern gives up a lot of yardage and points, their defense is buoyed by a plus-7 turnover margin.
Junior defensive end Tyler Scott leads the 'Cats with seven sacks, while sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell heads the secondary and is third on the team in tackles.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
ON MSU'S SIDE: It's simple, contain Venric Mark. Although he doesn't get the publicity that Denard Robinson or Montee Ball has gotten he may be even more dangerous because he can do so many things with the ball in his hands. He's a player that can single-handedly change the course of a game and the Spartans need to hit him with some negative yardage plays.
ON NORTHWESTERN'S SIDE The Wildcats defense has to come to play for four quarters. Northwestern has been susceptible to giving up leads late in games and that's because their defense isn't as strong as a unit as Pat Fitzgerald would like it to be, meaning the Wildcats will need some turnovers to secure an eighth win.
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