Big Game Hunting: Easy or queasy for Northwestern at Michigan State?

All the Wildcats have to do now is keep playing nasty defense, keep hanging in there on offense and avoid falling apart against the inferior foes left to play.

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Nebraska v Northwestern

Drake Anderson and the rest of the running game have to be more productive.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hut, hut . . . hurl?

You’ve got to hand it to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald for his wit, wisdom and — perhaps most of all — eloquence. Who could have better described the experience of watching the Wildcats soar to a 5-0 start after plummeting to 3-9 last season?

“You want to ride that roller coaster?” he said. “I hope you’ve got a vomit bag with you.”

See? So we’ve got that bit of loveliness settled.

That brings us to No. 11 Northwestern (-13½) at Michigan State (2:30 p.m., ESPN2, 720-AM). The Wildcats are in such a strong position to win the Big Ten West for the second time in three years, it really has come down to this: Don’t choke. Don’t gag. Don’t . . . well, let’s not get gross again.

With another rash of games canceled or postponed across the FBS landscape, a matchup with the unimpressive Spartans (1-3) is a welcome opportunity for the Wildcats to simply keep rolling.

One of those canceled games: Minnesota at No. 18 Wisconsin, ending the longest uninterrupted rivalry streak — 113 years — in the country. The Badgers, even after losing last weekend in Evanston, posed the only credible threat in the division. Now they’ve had three games called off for COVID-19 reasons, leaving them without hope of meeting the six-games-played threshold to qualify for Indianapolis.

Another of those canceled games: No. 3 Ohio State at Illinois. It’s the Buckeyes’ second cancellation, meaning that one more could prevent them from playing in the Big Ten title game.

All Northwestern has to do to get there — aside from playing enough games — is keep playing nasty defense, keep hanging in there on offense and avoid falling apart against remaining foes MSU, Minnesota and Illinois.

“Probably what’s most exciting right now about our football team is we haven’t played, still, a complete game,” Fitzgerald said.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is 0-2 as a starter against the Spartans, both of those tough days coming when Ramsey played at Indiana. It would be nice if a stagnant running game would come to life and help get him into the win column. That does seem to be the Wildcats’ most dangerous flaw.

Of local interest: The Spartans are led by first-year coach Mel Tucker, whose time as defensive coordinator of the Bears (2013 and 2014) still gives fans nightmares. He’s being paid a salary of $5.5 million, a preposterous figure considering highly successful predecessor Mark Dantonio never sniffed such rarefied air. Tucker and his staff are juggling an in-season quarterback competition between Rocky Lombardi and former Naperville Central star Payton Thorne. A redshirt freshman, Thorne saw his first action in a loss to Indiana, throwing for 110 yards and scampering on one play for 38.

“There’s nothing set in stone,” Tucker said.

When it comes to who’s winning this game, there kind of is. Cats, 24-14.


Northern Illinois (+20) at Western Michigan (11 a.m., ESPN+, 560-AM): The Huskies are winless. The Broncos are unbeaten. If Thomas Hammock’s team ever stops committing the kind of devastating turnovers that keep a coach up at night, maybe improvement will come. WMU, 42-24.

Maryland (+11½) at No. 12 Indiana (11 a.m., ESPN2): What a fun QB matchup between Indiana’s Michael Penix — the next-best thing to Fields in the Big Ten — and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa, younger brother of Tua. After such an emotional game at OSU, the Hoosiers need motivation-machine coach Tom Allen at his rah-rah best. IU pulls away late and covers.

Kent State (+7½) at Buffalo (11 a.m., CBSSN): It’s best on best in the MAC East. Who stays perfect? Bulls in OT.

No. 22 Auburn (+24½) at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): No Nick Saban? Probably not a big problem for the Crimson Tide, who clearly have the better, more complete and more explosive team. Then again, the Tigers have won two of the last three Iron Bowls. Roll Tide, 38-21.

My favorite favorite: Michigan (-1) vs. Penn State (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Last weekend’s OT escape at Rutgers might not be top-of-the-résumé material, but it alleviated some pressure on the Wolverines. The winless Nittany Lions have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

My favorite underdog: LSU (+15) at No. 5 Texas A&M (6 p.m., ESPN): The Aggies are terrific, but they’re 1-8 against the Tigers since joining the SEC and needed seven overtimes to get their lone “W” in 2018.

Last week: 4-4 straight up, 5-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 28-14 straight up, 22-19-1 vs. the spread.

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