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MSU bowl hopes in jeopardy after loss to Northwestern

9:05 PM, Nov 17, 2012   |    comments
Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter (2) stiff arms Michigan State Spartans cornerback Johnny Adams (5) during 1st quarter of a game at Spartan Stadium. (Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE)
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EAST LANSING (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - At the end of another fruitless day, near the end of this somber season, in a trailer behind Spartan Stadium, pushed against a wall and surrounded by reporters, Will Gholston got a question that made him pause.

What has this season taught you?

"You've got to give me a second to think about that one," Gholston said, and he took a few along with a deep breath.

"The biggest thing that I've learned this season," he said, "is that anything is truly and deeply possible."

Even a 5-6 record for Michigan State, the preseason Big Ten favorite in the eyes of many. Even four turnovers, two blunders at the Northwestern goal line and a late defensive coverage bust - all contributing to the Spartans' 23-20 loss to the Wildcats today at Spartan Stadium.

And yes, even an 0-4 Big Ten record at home this season. This program has gone winless in league home games once in the past 30 years, in John L. Smith's final season of 2006.

"That is ridiculous," Gholston said.

"To me, that's unheard of," said his coach, Mark Dantonio. "I've been here 12 years. Six on the front end (as a Nick Saban assistant), six on the back end. That's never happened.

"This has always been a great place to play, a great environment. I appreciate the fan support today. I thought that the fans showed, and I appreciate that. I feel badly for them because I know they suffer, too."

The fans certainly weren't the problem, after all the discussion about their support in recent weeks. A crowd of 75,101 took up most of the space in the stadium on a sunny Senior Day, only to watch the Spartans lose their fifth close game of the season.

That's five by a total of 13 points and four Big Ten home games by a total of 11. That's a lot of near misses to rue, but the only numbers that really matter are 5-6 overall, 2-5 in the Big Ten - and one win needed to earn a bowl bid.

Dantonio's first five teams have gone bowling, the longest streak in school history, but the Spartans will need to win next Saturday at Minnesota to make it six.

"We need to go to Minnesota with the right mind-set, the right idea, and we need to get it done and go 6-6 and get to a bowl," Dantonio said. "I don't care what bowl it is. Going 6-6 and getting to a bowl game is the focus."

Northwestern (8-3, 4-3) recovered from last week's giveaway loss at Michigan to put itself in a strong position for the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla. The Spartans are likely out of the Gator discussion and now have a best-case scenario of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 29 in Tempe, Ariz.

They're in this position despite outgaining Northwestern, 419-303, converting on 8-for-17 third downs and allowing just 3-for-14, scoring two points on a Gholston/Max Bullough sack and safety. They got 133 rushing yards from Le'Veon Bell and 297 passing yards from Andrew Maxwell, and possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes than the Wildcats did.

They're in this position because Maxwell never got the snap on third-and-1 from the Northwestern 2. And they're in this position because that was the first of four MSU turnovers, compared with none for the Wildcats.

One was a Maxwell pick for a 43-yard touchdown, with Bell failing to pick up a blitz and Maxwell hit as he threw. And Bell was stuffed on fourth down from the Northwestern 1, erasing another chance for MSU points.

Dan Conroy missed a 37-yard field goal, and MSU safety Kurtis Drummond got mixed up on his coverage assignment late, allowing Trevor Siemian to hit a wide-open Dan Vitale for a 41-yard play to set up the winning field goal.

"This team is right there every game," Bell said. "It's just ..."

It's just a losing season, until further notice. And that was reason for pause more than once in another dreary postgame scene.

"I didn't think we'd lose a game this year," Gholston said.

Contact Joe Rexrode: 313-222-2625 or jrexrode@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog atfreep.com/heyjoe.

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