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Michigan State holds a pretty healthy margin over Northwestern in the overall series, but over the past few years, the Wildcats have gotten the best of the Spartans.

As the teams get set to square off at noon Saturday at Spartan Stadium, Northwestern will be looking to win for the third straight time and fourth in the last five, not to mention a third consecutive victory in East Lansing.

“I don’t know if we’ve had a lot of success,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday when asked about winning each of the last two seasons. “We’ve won and I’ll take that. We’ve found a way in both games. They were not pretty, at all, on our end.

“Last year was a really interesting game. Two defenses played really well through regulation and then two quarterbacks got on fire in overtime and we found a way to make one play. One thing is we put ourselves behind in both games. We were down 14-0 in Spartan Stadium in our last trip up there and I think down 10-0 last year. We can’t let that happen, but we found a way to win and that’s what it’s all about.”

That early deficit two seasons ago flipped quickly as the Michigan State defense was overwhelmed in a 54-40 victory for the Wildcats. Last year, Clayton Thorson and Brian Lewerke dueled with the Spartans quarterback throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns in a 39-31 triple-overtime loss.

Whether a similar performance is in store this time remains to be seen, but neither quarterback has been on fire so far this season.

Lewerke has turned the ball over seven times through four games, including five interceptions. Thorson, who is coming back from a leg injury suffered in last season’s Music City Bowl, has yet to regain his form.

“There are some throws I know he wants back,” Fitzgerald said of Thorson. “Head coaches and quarterbacks get evaluated on wins. We’ve lost three straight, so we’ve all got to be better and he’s gotta be better, too. He knows that, we know that and that’s what we’re gonna keep working to do.”

The start to this season has been similar to the one the Wildcats (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) has last season. After beating Purdue in the opener, Northwestern has now dropped three in a row headed to Michigan State. Last season, Northwestern stood 2-3 before winning the final eight games.

One of those victories came at home against Michigan State (3-1, 1-0).

To get a third straight win over the 20th-ranked Spartans, Northwestern will have to bounce back from last week’s loss to Michigan when it allowed a 17-0 lead to slip away. It was the Wildcats’ first game without leading rusher Jeremy Larkin, who two weeks ago retired from football because of a condition in his spine.

Against Michigan, the Wildcats managed just 28 rushing yards with junior John Moten IV gaining 36 yards on 13 carries and senior Solomon Vault picking up 18 yards on seven attempts.

“I thought they adjusted fine,” Fitzgerald said. “We gotta have more production. It’s a production business, and we didn’t produce enough. And now we’re playing the No. 1 rushing defense in the country so, buckle it up. Put some more air in your helmet. Gonna have our hands full again, but I thought they all adjusted fine.

“A challenging week, no doubt about that, but that group and the offense handled it as well as you can. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a win.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau