EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) -- Unbeaten Northwestern is gearing up for its first real test against No. 23 Michigan State, a squad head coach Pat Fitzgerald calls "the most physical football team" the Wildcats have faced this year.
"Obviously an exciting game here on the horizon," Fitzgerald said Monday. "Two very good football teams who are probably playing their best football of the year."
Coming off a bye week, the Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) have gotten some national recognition, earning votes in the Associated Press poll and falling just outside of the Top 25. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) beat Iowa 16-13 on Saturday.
Fitzgerald has consistently downplayed the significance of votes his team has received in various media polls as the season has progressed and said he wasn't impressed by his team's recent jump.
"The significance on that is very minimal from our team standpoint," he said. "Expectations around here never change. Maybe the expectations in the media or outside of our football team change but we can't control that so we don't worry too much about it."
Standout running back Tyrell Sutton said support for the team has become more pronounced around campus and hopes the Wildcats' play will keep the enthusiasm rising.
"I've seen some people on campus decide to jump on the bandwagon," he said. "It's up to us to give the fans something to buzz about and I think we've done a good job of that the last five or six weeks. We just have to maintain that buzz and make sure we stay humble and stay grounded and play every game like we're 0-0."
Fitzgerald said his team spent the off week practicing and preparing, before relaxing and watching college football on TV during an idle Saturday.
The rest was welcomed by the Wildcats, who were dealing with assorted bumps and bruises.
"It came at a great time," Sutton said. "I was a little sore after the (Iowa) game and it couldn't have come at a better time. We were a little banged up, we had some guys not playing at 100 percent."
Fitzgerald said that "we're as healthy as maybe we've been five weeks into the season in a couple of years," and said offensive lineman Kurt Mattis and running back Stephen Simmons should be healthy enough to play against Michigan State.
He also hinted at some changes on the Wildcats kickoff return team.
Jeremy Ebert and Jeravin Matthews lined up deep for Northwestern last week, but Sherrick McManis and Omar Conteh were listed as the kick returners on the Wildcats depth chart on Monday. Fitzgerald said any of those four, along with Simmons, are candidates to return kicks against the Spartans.
"We've got a plethora of guys that can return the ball," he said. "They all have unique talents, they're a little bit different in their running styles. I think we've got a good problem back there."