In each of the last two seasons, Northwestern went into its matchup with Michigan State needing a big win after looking decidedly meager in its earlier games. In 2006 the Cats pounced on State, building a shocking 38-3 lead by halftime … then uttered barely a meow in watching the Spartans stage the biggest rally in major college football history. From the NU sidelines, the only upside was the emergence of C.J. Bacher, whose mobility and arm offered the Wildcats their first legitimate hope for completed passes since the Brett Basenez era.

A year ago Bacher’s 2-3 Northwestern team went into East Lansing heavily favored to lose to the 4-1 Spartans, but Bacher delivered on his promise to find a few receivers. His 520-yard passing day broke a school record and NU won 48-41 in overtime.

The more things change, the more Northwestern still needs Bacher to show up—and put the ball in the hands of the guys in purple. When State visits NU in Evanston Saturday—and a few tickets are still available—the Cats will take the field with a 5-0 record, their best in decades. But for the first time since their 1995 and 1996 Big Ten championship teams, they’ve been winning with defense—including a red zone stand in the final minutes that beat Iowa a couple weekends ago. Bacher, meanwhile, has been silent when he hasn’t been bad, throwing for as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns, and the offense has only been putting up 363 yards a game, ninth in the league.

The 4-1 Spartans don’t have the most impressive stats either—they’re in the middle of the pack on both sides of the ball—but there’s no doubt that they have a formidable running attack, with a powerful line clearing the way for back Javon Ringer, who tops the Big Ten with 165 yards a game.

Can the Cats stop Ringer? Can Bacher stop throwing to the wrong team? Two yeses and NU wins; even one no and the Cats go down. If Bacher only turns the ball over once, even twice, I’m guessing NU will find a way to move its offense against a team they seem to rally for. And in Iowa City two weeks ago the Wildcat defense coped with the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, Shonn Greene…. So, perhaps foolishly, I’m going to be true to my school and say Northwestern beats State by something like 31-24. 

In other games:

·        Illinois mauls Minnesota.

·        Iowa inches by Indiana.

·        Michigan torpedoes Toledo.

·        Ohio State picks apart Purdue.

·        Wisconsin waylays Penn State.

 As for the Fighting Irish:

·        North Carolina noses out Notre Dame.

My record last week: 5-1.

For the season: 23-7.