Spartans Gear Up For Northwestern

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Mark Dantonio knows what Northwestern can do. His Michigan State defense won't have to be reminded.
The Spartans were shredded by quarterback C.J. Bacher last fall and fell 48-41 in overtime. Bacher ruined MSU's Homecoming with 38 completions for a school-record 520 yards and five touchdowns.
Saturday, the No. 23 Spartans (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) can prove things are different in 2008 when they visit the Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) in a series with back-to-back instant classics. Two years ago in Evanston, Ill., MSU overcame a 38-3 deficit with the greatest comeback in NCAA history.
"Our defensive players understand what happened last year in this stadium," Dantonio said Tuesday of the fifth-best passing day in Big Ten history. "I think we've all seen that enough. So we're well aware of what they can do offensively."
The Spartans weren't bad on offense that day, either, with running back Javon Ringer gaining 185 yards on just 12 carries. If he had carried 44 times, as he did two weeks ago at Indiana, Ringer might still be running.
Northwestern's run defense is better this year. But so is MSU's pass coverage.
"We've played a lot of players in the secondary," Dantonio said. "We're a little nicked up back there. But I think our guys will make the bell. The keys back there this week are discipline and maturity. You have to be able to handle the ups and downs of a game. One mistake can't lead to another one."
That happens a lot against Bacher, who leads the conference with 284 passing yards per game in a no-huddle, spread offense.
"There were some things that happened in last year's game that were structural problems," Dantonio said. "There were some that were physical problems. And there were some that were mental problems. That was one of the poorer defensive games that I've been a part of as a coach. So you use that as motivation."
His program also is using Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol to impersonate Bacher in practice, though it is hard to duplicate the Wildcats' pace and precision.
"They haven't tasted defeat yet," Dantonio said. "Usually, when that happens, a person's confidence is very, very high. Their players will play hard and expect to win. They'll play with emotion and coach with emotion."
Dantonio said the Wildcats have taken on the personality of their coach, Pat Fitzgerald, a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year in 1995-96. And when Dantonio was a graduate assistant at Purdue, he worked under Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern's new defensive coordinator.
But the Spartans have a five-game winning streak, too, and are ranked for the first time in three years. After a 7-6 season with no loss by more than seven points, MSU has found ways to win, as it did last week with a fourth-down stop by linebacker Adam Decker in a 16-13 win over Iowa.
"I said earlier I think there's something special about this football team," Dantonio said. "We're finding a way in the red zone to get (the defense) off the field. When the defensive gives up a score, the offense is able to answer. Let's face it, you're going to have to have some things fall your way. The bottom line is we're a 5-1 football team."
Win or lose, Dantonio is happy with his team's approach. That has meant taking advantage of situations, a goal coming into this year.
"You are only guaranteed 12 opportunities," Dantonio said. "We want to make sure, when we look back at the end of the season, we have no regrets about how we prepared or how we focused in every single game. If our players play as hard as they can, I can handle whatever comes down the street."

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