For the past two months, the Spartans (5-6 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) have seen game after game slip through their fingers.
MSU now has lost five Big Ten games this year by a composite margin of 13 points — this is nothing new to you because with one game left in the regular season, close losses have become the norm.
In fact, it’s happened so frequently that to call this season a broken record would be recursive in itself.
That said, there was something different about Saturday’s 23-20 home loss to Northwestern (8-3, 4-3).
In each of MSU’s close losses this season — and its one squeaker of a win at Wisconsin — there always was the sense the Spartans could battle back from behind.
In losses to Iowa, No. 20 Michigan and No. 17 Nebraska, MSU relied on its defense to hold the line and keep the opponent from scoring.
Against No. 4 Ohio State, the defense simply needed to get the offense the ball back.
And with the Spartans touting one of the nation’s best defensive units — ranked seventh nationally, averaging 289.36 yards allowed per game — it was always surprising when time and again, that unit came up short.
For whatever reason, it always seemed premature to begin writing a postgame recap until the final whistle blew.
But this Saturday, that wasn’t the case.
When junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and the offense trotted out to the MSU 20-yard line with one minute and 29 seconds remaining, I felt confident in beginning to write about MSU’s first team to go winless at home in the Big Ten since 2006.
That nagging feeling of a last-second miracle that would force me to rewrite the story never even entered my mind.
And within the milliseconds Maxwell’s fourth incompletion bounced off the hands of junior tight end Dion Sims and hit the ground, the story had been filed — with more than a minute remaining on the game clock.
It wasn’t that I haven’t seen enough heroic drives, miracle plays or out-of-left-field moments that flipped the score in the last minutes to believe the Spartans could pull it off.
It was that after watching this team give the ball up four times and leave multiple scoring opportunities on the table, it was inconceivable that the offense was capable of putting any more points on the board.
Or maybe it was that after seeing the same song and dance four times prior, the end result had become about as difficult to determine as the end of your favorite movie.
Senior linebacker Chris Norman — who played in his final game at Spartan Stadium — summed it up succinctly.
“This has been the model of the season,” he said.
And now, the Spartans find themselves on the brink of the season’s most important game.
A win at Minnesota would earn MSU a trip to a postseason bowl game and, more importantly, another month of practice — invaluable experience for a young team that unquestionably needs it.
It’s another instance of the Spartans needing to focus on the future — even if that’s just because the past is so ugly.
Jesse O’Brien is a State News football reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.