Nov. 17, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The most stupefying artifact Michigan State left behind from its game against Northwestern wasn't the unfavorable 23-20 score that left it with a 0-4 Big Ten record at Spartan Stadium in 2012.
It's that someday when these Spartans are old and gray and gathered at some sort of reunion, and they reflect on the details of this game, they'll still be asking each other, "How did we throw two interceptions and lose two fumbles, fail to convert two crucial fourth downs that effectively upped our turnover total to six and miss another field goal, and still almost win it at the end?"
And once that can of worms is opened, the conversation will turn into a series of "but-what-abouts," as in: But what about the one play that could have turned the four-point loss to Nebraska, the two-point loss at Michigan, the three-point overtime loss to Iowa and the one-point loss to Ohio State into victories?
Junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis was content to defer that discussion to the second half of his life.
"You can't keep looking back on it," Lewis said. "You just gotta deal with it. I can't keep thinking about it because it will drive you crazy. So I don't think about it because it will make me angry. So why think about it if it's going to make you mad?
"I've still got another year here. We've got of lot of guys coming back next year and we're going to have a strong team. Guys are going to be more hungry to get that win at Minnesota next week so we can go to a bowl game."
Lewis did allow for one revisionist flashback that substitutes a key catch, a better decision or a different official's call for mistakes made in each of MSU's six losses.
If everything had come together the way the Spartans envisioned in August, Lewis said "it's going to be most definitely an undefeated team, a Rose Bowl team, a national-championship-type team. We have the talent."
A total of 13 points and a 5-6 record make that pleasing mirage go poof.
"There's always going to be the what-ifs," Lewis said. "But the what-ifs didn't happen. You can't go back and do anything about it, so you might as well not even think about what if and just move on.
"Football's like life is, up and down. How do you respond to adversity? I feel like I respond well and a lot of guys on our team respond well to adversity. Things just aren't falling our way so the only thing we can do is learn from it."
The Spartans had already earned a Ph.D in bad breakology going into the game, so they started working on a second in the first quarter when quarterback Andrew Maxwell and center Jack Allen couldn't execute the most basic play in all of football - the center-quarterback exchange.
Instead of a sneak into the end zone from the 1-yard line for a 7-3 lead, Maxwell never got a handle on the ball and the Wildcats recovered it at the 2. Two plays later, middle linebacker Max Bullough and defensive end William Gholston won a reprieve when they sacked Northwestern quarterback Kain Coulter for a safety.
However, the game remained as cockeyed for MSU as the 5-3 lead it took after getting the ball back on the ensuing free kick.
The Spartans' next drive made it to the Wildcat 1, and on third down Bell seemingly reached the ball across the goal line for a 9-3 advantage. The official on the field marked the ball short, however, the replay official confirmed and the possession ended on Bell's 3-yard loss on fourth down.
"I thought for sure I was in," Bell said. "I was laying on top of a player and a guy had my legs. I made sure I put the ball down before my knee hit. So I had no idea. I thought when they were going to look at it they were definitely going to change it."
After Northwestern went ahead 6-5 with 41 seconds left in the first half, Michigan State had one more chance to lead at halftime.
But senior kicker Dan Conroy, who missed seven field goals in the previous two seasons combined, was off-target for the eighth time this year - from 35 yards out.
Early in the third quarter, Bell missed a blitz pickup, Maxwell was hit while throwing and linebacker David Nwabuisi intercepted the fluttering pass and returned it 43 yards for a 13-5 advantage.
Later, with MSU trailing 20-13, freshman wideout Aaron Burbridge made a 26-yard catch to the Northwestern 35, but fumbled. Another drive ended at the end of the quarter on Maxwell's ill-advised throw that resulted in another interception.
A blown coverage that left Wildcat slotback Mike Vitale uncovered for a 41-yard pass reception, led to the field goal that broke a 20-20 tie with 7:30 remaining. Another in a long series of puzzling pass interference penalties, this time on cornerback Johnny Adams, advanced a time-consuming Northwestern drive late in the fourth quarter.
Although the Spartans got one more shot, their final drive ended on tight end Dion Sims' dropped pass on fourth-and-10.
That, in a nutshell, is how a game that looks like a win in most respects statistically ends up in the loss column for the first winless home conference schedule since 2006.
"That is ridiculous, right there," Gholston said. "Nobody goes in thinking you're going to lose at The House. I didn't think I was going to lose a game this year.
"The biggest thing I've learned this season is that anything is truly and deeply possible. This seriously a game of inches, seconds, split-moments, technique and fundamentals and it shows. A split-second behind or a split-second too fast and you don't make the play. That has really shown this year, especially for me personally."
The Spartans now find themselves in the position of having to beat the Golden Gophers at their stadium in next Saturday's regular season finale just to be bowl eligible. A victory would likely place MSU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. on Dec. 29.
"It's just frustration," Bell said. "The guys know where little things are here and there are that we could have done a little better. There were a whole bunch of points we didn't get. We were inside the 5 twice and came out with no points, and we missed a field goal, all in the first half.
"And we were still in the game."
Coach Mark Dantonio quickly covered the loss with a shovel of dirt to be excavated at some point in the distant future.
"I can't live in the past," he said. "It's a test and you're under fire and you have to be able to respond and persevere through these things. We've lost five games in Spartan Stadium this year and to me, that's unheard of.
"You use this as a way to motivate you and bring you closer. You have to find value in what's going on around you, whether you're succeeding or not succeeding. If you can do that, then you have a chance to get better and move forward. If you look backwards and blame others, if you get bitter and get negative and think you can't get there, then things fall apart.
"Our football team will not fall apart."