Out with a whimper
MSU defeated 23-20 by Northwestern in seniors' final game at Spartan Stadium
With only two games in the regular season, the MSU football team looked one last time to turn their season around, facing Northwestern at home for what would be the final game at Spartan Stadium for a group of 13 seniors.
The Spartans needed a win to secure bowl eligibility and an extra month of the season. They needed a win to have something to build on, heading into the final game of the regular season at Minnesota. They needed a win to salvage what was left of a disappointing season, and prove they could win when they needed to.
And yet, the song remains the same.
For the fifth time this season, the Spartans (5-6 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) lost by a margin of four points or less, falling 23-20 at home to Northwestern (8-3, 4-3).
And for the first time since 2006, MSU has finished its home schedule without recording a single conference win at Spartan Stadium, racking up losses to No. 6 Ohio State, Iowa, No. 16 Nebraska and now the Wildcats.
“We’ve lost five games in Spartan Stadium this year, and to me, that’s unheard of,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “I’ve been here 12 years — six on the front end, six on the back — and that’s never happened.”
The difference maker was the turnover margin, in which MSU was on the wrong side of a four turnover difference. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell was picked off twice — including one returned by Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi for a touchdown early in the second half.
The Spartans also coughed up the ball at Northwestern’s one-yard line when there was a fumbled snap on a quarterback sneak, taking even more potential points off the board.
“It’s tough to win when you have four turnovers, especially when you have one on the one-inch line,” Maxwell said. “We turned the ball over (and left points on the board, especially in the red zone. Those are all things that we put a premium on and didn’t execute today.”
Maxwell finished with 22-of-47 passing for 297 yards and two touchdowns.
The junior quarterback saw the return of one of his favorite targets, junior tight end Dion Sims, whose productivity has been hampered lately due to injuries. However, Sims caught five passes for 102 yards Saturday, including one 44-yard reception in which he dragged a pile of defenders to the Northwestern 11-yardline.
But trailing by three facing fourth and 10 on MSU’s final drive of the game, Maxwell couldn’t get Sims the ball, and Northwestern was able to run out the clock to secure the victory.
“There was a lot of things we left off the table today,” offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said of the play.
Maxwell also received some help from junior running back Le’Veon Bell, who ran 32 times for 133 yards, his sixth 100-yard effort of the season. But it wasn’t enough to send off the seniors with a victory in their last game of what has become the unfriendly confines of Spartan Stadium.
On Friday, Dantonio had the senior class address the team, presenting what he called their “traveler’s gift.”
Among those seniors was linebacker Chris Norman who had eight tackles in his final game at Spartan Stadium. The senior captain said he spoke to his teammates about pain — a common theme among this year’s Spartans.
“Both physical pain, and emotionally because that’s been something that everyone has experienced as a player and coach alike,” he said. “I was talking about how it’s not so much the pain, but how you respond to it.”
Once again, the Spartans must find themselves responding to pain if they want to extend their season by one game.
They’ll get that last chance next Saturday as they look to take on the Golden Gophers in Minnesota — and with it, continue Dantonio’s streak of heading to a bowl game every year.
“It’s important,” Dantonio said of the final match up. “We need to go to a bowl game … I don’t care what bowl it is, but that has to be the focus.”