Game to be won on ground

Matt Baker

As Northwestern prepares for Saturday’s game at Michigan State, the Wildcats hope to emulate their run defense’s success against Michigan – but with different results.

A week after the Cats’ defense held the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Mike Hart, to 30 first-half yards in their 28-16 loss, NU (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) faces a Spartans ground game ranked third in the Big Ten.

Michigan State (4-1, 1-1) is averaging 209 rushing yards per game with 10 touchdowns through the first five games of the season.

“That’s just what it comes down to when you’re a defense playing major college football,” senior linebacker Adam Kadela said. “You’ve got to stop the run and try to limit them to the pass, because that’s what they’re going to want to do. They’ve got great running backs.”

Michigan State uses a dual-back system similar to the one the Cats saw against Ohio State. The Buckeyes, led by Maurice and Chris Wells, torched NU for 205 yards. Junior running back Javon Ringer leads the Spartans’ ground attack with 544 yards, while senior Jehuu Caulcrick has racked up 373.

NU sophomore defensive end Corey Wootton said he expects Ringer to be as hard to tackle as Hart was last week.

“We just need to continue coming to the ball, running to the ball every play,” Wootton said. “That’s going to be how we’re going to stop these guys, just swarming them.”

Just as NU hopes to stop the run to beat the Spartans, the Cats are also looking to establish their own ground game against a Michigan State defense that gave up 214 yards to Wisconsin last week.

The Cats will likely be without junior running back Tyrell Sutton, who is expected to miss his fourth straight game with a high ankle injury.

Despite the absence of the team’s leading rusher from the past two years, coach Pat Fitzgerald said he is optimistic about NU’s rushing offense behind senior Brandon Roberson, junior Omar Conteh and redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons.

“One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “Brandon’s been a 100-yard rusher for us. Now Omar’s a 100-yard rusher for us. Stephen had a big kickoff return again … so I like the way those guys are playing right now.”

Aside from trying to snap its three-game losing streak and earn its first conference win of the season against a team sitting just outside the top 25, NU is trying to avenge a historic loss to the Spartans.

After jumping out to a 38-3 lead in last year’s Homecoming game against Michigan State, the Spartans rallied with 38 unanswered points to mount the biggest comeback in NCAA Division I-A history.

But NU junior quarterback C.J. Bacher said last year’s loss hasn’t been the focus of the Cats’ minds during this week’s preparations.

“I think there’s a bit of a feeling of wanting to get redemption, but that’s how it is anytime when you lose to a team and come back the next season,” Bacher said. “But it’s not like the way the game played out is really playing into our minds as much. We feel like if we can go out and execute, bring the right game plan and play well, then it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the ball.”

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]