Nov. 22, 2013
There are more than a few storylines to keep an eye on when the Wildcats host No. 13 Michigan State at Ryan Field Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN), not the least of which will be the play of those 'Cats celebrating Senior Day as well as a Northwestern season that recalls that of the 2012 Spartans. Skip Myslenski explains in his Friday primer:.
BEAUTY IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER: Fourteen 'Cats will play at Ryan Field for the last time on Saturday and one of them is defensive end Tyler Scott. He is a team captain; was a midseason All-Big Ten selection; has been Academic All-Big Ten; and currently ranks fifth in the Big Ten with his half-dozen sacks. But coming out of high school he was little recruited, eventually receiving scholarship offers from only Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and the 'Cats. Another is quarterback Kain Colter, who was snubbed by Stanford after injuring his shoulder as a high school senior, and a third is wide receiver Mike Jensen, a former walk-on who both earned a scholarship and cracked the starting lineup.
Then there is middle linebacker Damien Proby
, another of the team's captains who is second in the Big Ten with his 9.1 tackles per game. "I didn't understand why he wasn't being recruited," Pat Fitzgerald
said, thinking back to when he was in high school. "His tape was outstanding. He played sideline to sideline. He was physical. You talked to the people in the building, he was a high character guy. He's a great student. Met his family, they were just terrific. He was incredibly humble.
"I mean, this is a head scratcher. Are we missing something? Then from the minute he got here he's been a very productive player. He's been a great leader, elected captain. It's a great story about what football can do for you. A young man from a very hard working family in Las Vegas comes to Northwestern and is walking out of here with a great career and a great degree and he's prepared for life."
Does that story make him even more eager to uncover raw gems that others are ignoring?
"We've had a lot of success with guys like that," said Fitzgerald. "We've trusted our evaluation in three different ways. First and foremost, what they're doing academically from a consistency standpoint. In today's world, the ever-changing society allowing certain things socially, to see guys who continue to have high character and continue to make great choices. Then, third, guys who played football the right way, and he played the right way from the minute we evaluated him. More so, I think, it's getting more and more important that you stick to who you are. I don't think that's going to change anytime soon here."
WELCOME BACK: His struggles over the previous month were well-documented. But last week against Michigan, in weather not conducive to his strength, Trevor Siemian looked more his old self, ending that rainy Saturday 19-of-28 for 153 yards. "He's always had confidence. He's a gun slinger. He's not shy to pull the trigger or anything like that," Colter said of that resurrection. "So I was never worried or scared that he would have a lack of confidence or be shaken in any way. I knew he was going to do it."
"He's played really well except for a couple games in his career. That's what I'm more focused on," said Fitzgerald. "There's a couple games maybe he'd like to have back. But he's probably as healthy as he's been all year. He got a little banged up in the Wisconsin game. I didn't share that with you because Kain wasn't going to play (the next week against Minnesota). So I had to keep that quiet.
"But he wasn't healthy for a couple weeks. But he still went out there valiantly and played. So he's probably as healthy right now as he's been since prior to the Wisconsin game. I think that's helped him. So I'm proud of him, the way that he's stayed the course. He's had some tough things happen to him, and that's part of playing quarterback. You're the hero and the goat."
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES: Michigan State, which visits Ryan Field for Senior Day, can clinch the Legends Division title and a spot in the Big Ten championship game with a win.
But just a fall ago its resume was not only far less impressive. It was also one that is sure to resonate with any `Cat fan. For it lost by one at home to Ohio State. And it lost by three in double overtime at home to Iowa. And it lost by two at Michigan. And it lost by four at home to Nebraska. And it lost by three at home to the `Cats.
"A lot of similarities between their season last year and what we're going through right now," Fitzgerald accurately noted. "A lot of games where they had the opportunity to win and they ended up on the short end. We're kind of in the same boat as they were. But they've responded boldly and have had a great run."
QUICKLY NOTED: The Spartans are catalyzed by their defense, which has limited opponents to an average of just 57.3 rushing yards and 228.4 total offensive yards a game. Both are tops in the nation and there's more. It has surrendered an average of only 13.3 first downs per game, second best in the nation, and allowed opponents to convert a mere 27.4 percent (40-of-146) of their third-down opportunities, also second best in the nation. Not surprisingly, then, they have surrendered an average of just 13.2 points per game, fourth best in the nation.
Asked about that defense, Colter at one point said, "They got a bunch of athletes and they do a good job of pressuring up front. They're going to be a big challenge." But at another point he also said, "They're basically the same guys we faced last year. Obviously, they've progressed and gotten a lot better as the season went on. But it should give us confidence that we're facing the same guys we faced last year, the same guys we moved the ball on last year. Offensively, even though we haven't had the production we'd like to have, our confidence isn't shaken. We still feel we can move the ball on anybody."
On average, the Spartans surrender a mere 2.1 yards per rushing attempt. That leads the nation. But last week Nebraska averaged 5.7 yards while rolling up 182 rushing yards. Still. The Huskers fell by 13 after committing five turnovers. "You've got to take care of the ball," Fitzgerald emphasized. "Michigan State did a great job taking the ball away and that really cost Nebraska. That really cost them."
Last week against Michigan, Colter played three positions. Fitzgerald suggested that will be reprised against the Spartans when he said, "We're trying to use him in ways, especially with some of the injuries that we have, to try and get him as many touches as we possibly can."
Asked early this week if it had hit him that Saturday would be his final game at Ryan Field, Colter said, "I don't know that it's hit me. I think it'll hit me when I'm taking the field. But I definitely realize the sand's running out of the hourglass for me. So I've just got to try and make the most of these last two opportunities and try to be bowl eligible."
Place-kicker Jeff Budzien enters Saturday's game with 261 career points, one shy of the `Cats scoring record. He is riding a streak of 132 straight successful PATs and, on the season, is 18 of 20 on his field goal attempts -- best in the Big Ten in both field goals made and field goal percentage.
The `Cats injury reports lists starting safety Traveon Henry as questionable, wideout Cameron Dickerson as probable and offensive guard Geoff Mogus as doubtful.
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, on his 14 seniors: "It's hard to think that this is this group's last time on Ryan Field. But hopefully they'll play their best and the guys'll lift them up in the way that they play."
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook, subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter and sign up to receive promotional text alerts for the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!