|Northwestern's Venric Mark rushed for over 100 yards last week against Michigan, the seventh time he's accomplished that feat this season. (US Presswire)|
Kickoff: Saturday, noon ET (ESPN2)
Spread: Michigan State by 6.5
Watchability: If you like heartbreak, both teams have been plagued by late-game collapses numerous times this year. The Spartans will attempt to win their first conference home game this year, a shocking statistic given that Michigan State had BCS aspirations at the beginning of the season. All in all, it could be much worse than watching Kain Colter and Venric Mark's spread offense face off against the Spartans defense.
Shining stars: Northwestern -- Mark has been practicing this week and should be good to go for Saturday's game vs. the Spartans, despite injuring his left shoulder last week vs. Michigan. Mark is sixth in the country with an average of 191 all-purpose yards and his 21.6 punt return average leads the nation. He's rushed for over 100 yards his past four games, including 104 against Michigan, the second-best defense in the Big Ten. The junior is small enough (5-8) to hide behind his line but also quick enough to burst through small seams. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio will have to account for him on both offense and special teams. Michigan State -- If the Spartans are to win Saturday's game, it will be the defense that keeps the game close. Michigan State has the second-lowest scoring offense in the Big Ten (19.7), but its defense, led by linebacker Max Bullough, has allowed just 16.3 ppg, the fewest in the conference. Bullough, who is literally at the heart of the Spartans' defense, hasn't let his play diminish as Michigan State has trudged through a miserable year. He leads the team with 87 tackles and had two huge sacks in the upset win against Wisconsin two weeks ago. Expect him to have a primary role in neutralizing Mark.
Who could steal the show: Northwestern -- The quarterback duo of Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter hasn't failed to produce points for the Wildcats. The two, sharing time under center, threw three touchdown passes last week against the Wolverines, the top-rated pass defense in the country. Ten games into the season is a little late to be recognizing the best formations, but the Wildcats are a constant work in progress. The key for coach Pat Fitzgerald, as he said earlier this year, is how to incorporate all of his weapons onto the field at once. Siemiean has a strong and accurate arm while Colter can scramble like a running back whenever he's the ballcarrier. Their unique offense, which benefits from a deep wide receiving pool, has given Big Ten defenses fits this season. Michigan State -- No one needed the Spartans' bye week more than Le'Veon Bell, the Michigan State workhorse who has bore the brunt of a stalled passing attack. Bell has rushed 283 times this season, the second-most attempts in the country. In the heart-wrenching loss to Nebraska two weeks ago, Bell rushed 36 times and scored two touchdowns only to see the Huskers take the lead on a touchdown pass with six seconds left in the game. He should be as rested as he's been all season against the fourth-ranked rush defense in the Big Ten (122.5 yards allowed).
You going? Ranking the road trip: Before Spartans fans turn their attention to Tom Izzo and the basketball team, they should realize that Michigan State can still become bowl eligible. Coach Mark Dantonio said getting a win anytime is important regardless of the venue, but earning the team's first conference win at home could engender some optimism for next season.
Magic number for Northwestern: 6. Northwestern hasn't beaten Michigan State since a 2007 affair in East Lansing, but history may be on its side. The road team, dating back to 2004, has won six of the last seven meetings in the series. A win Saturday in East Lansing would give the Wildcats their fifth consecutive season of at least a .500 record or better in away games.
Magic number for Michigan State: 6. The Spartans' last six games have been decided by four points or fewer, the longest streak of its kind among FBS teams since at least 1996.
The game comes down to: Northwestern's offense against Michigan State's defense. As unique as the Wildcats' spread-option attack is, the Spartans have playmakers at every tier on defense. If Michigan State can hold Northwestern, Le'Veon Bell could make the difference for the Spartans.
Prediction: Michigan State 24, Northwestern 21
For more Big Ten coverage, follow Mike Singer and Dave Carey @CBSSportsBigTen.