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Northwestern can raise profile for bowl with upset


No. 11 Michigan State at Northwestern

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, 720-AM.

Updated: December 27, 2011 8:08AM

Michigan State already clinch­ed the Big Ten’s Legends Division title and will play the winner of the Penn State-Wisconsin game in the first Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 at Indianapolis, so its game Saturday at Northwestern is a bit anticlimactic.

But the Wildcats have some unfinished business when they face the Spartans at Ryan Field.

With their bowl-eligibility secured for a fifth consecutive season, the Wildcats could rise in the Big Ten pecking order with a victory over No. 11 Michigan State.

A victory also would cap a stunning turnaround for Northwestern (6-5, 3-4), which started 2-5 and was mired in a five-game losing streak.

And beating the Spartans (9-2, 6-1) would be a great send-off for seniors such as wide receiver Jeremy Ebert and quarterback Dan Persa, who has battled assorted injuries (Achilles recovery, turf toe, left shoulder) all season while platooning with Kain Colter.

Finally, it would put to rest memories of the Wildcats’ 35-27 loss to Michigan State last season. After running out to a 17-0 lead, the Wildcats blew it in the second half and watched the Spartans convert a fake punt that eventually led to a touchdown.

But the Wildcats’ defense should be more prepared for trick plays this time around, especially because it has been at the heart of the team’s turnaround. Players had overanalyzed plays and struggled communicating signals to each other, but after slamming Indiana 59-38 on Oct. 29, their confidence has turned around.

After each victory in the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak, Persa has credited the defense more so than the offense.

Now all the defense needs to do is contain Kirk Cousins, who is second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (229.2) and second in pass efficiency (146.9).

“He’s a great quarterback, and he brings a lot of experience behind him and has two great wide receivers [B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin] and an awesome running back [Le’Veon Bell],” cornerback Jeravin Matthews said. “We shouldn’t really get anything that we haven’t seen before.”

Northwestern outside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo is out with a shoulder injury.

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