Northwestern slips past Michigan State

Was there any question that the Northwestern-Michigan State game would come down to the wire?

The Wildcats and Spartans specialize in playing heart-burners every week. When it inevitably happened, though, Michigan State's complete inability to win a game -- especially at home -- proved much more powerful than Northwestern's tendency to blow leads.

The Wildcats (8-3) now are likely looking at a nine-win season after winning 23-20 in East Lansing. It was an impressive win made more impressive by the fact that star running back Venric Mark was limited by an injury and did not play the entire second half, while quarterback Kain Colter did not play much in the fourth quarter as he was dealing with injuries. But Northwestern, which was outgained 419-303, found a way to get the job done.

Or you could say the Spartans found a way to give it away, as they committed four turnovers, including a fumble inside Northwestern's 1 in the first half, and an Andrew Maxwell interception that turned into a 43-yard David Nwabuisi touchdown early in the second half. The Wildcats did not commit a single turnover.

Despite that discrepancy, the Spartans had several chances. I liked that, when Northwestern took over deep in its own territory with 2:46 left, Pat Fitzgerald did not get conservative. The Wildcats, behind Trevor Siemian, called some pass plays, and they got a first down on a pass interference on Johnny Adams. They ended up moving the ball near midfield and burning Michigan State's timeouts before punting.

That put pressure on the Michigan State offense, which as usual couldn't rise to the occasion. The Spartans' possession ended fittingly, with an incomplete pass to Dion Sims that could have been ruled a fumble. Dropped balls and turnovers have been the story all year for the Michigan State passing game, and even though Sims had a great game (five catches, 102 yards), he was not immune.

Northwestern's defense did play pretty well, though, and stuffed Michigan State on one goal line stand as Le'Veon Bell could not find any running room. Bell finished with 133 yards, but had to work hard for them on 33 carries.

Siemian did well in relief of Colter, throwing for 165 yards and leading the Wildcats on some good drives. The Wildcats had only one offensive touchdown, ran for only 57 yards and gave up a safety. But again, somehow, they found a way to win.

It's the same old story for Michigan State, which unbelievably went 0-4 in Big Ten play at home this season. The Spartans now have to win at Minnesota next week just to go bowling. Even if they do, very few Spartans fans would be excited about following this team to a postseason destination. It's been a disaster of a season for Mark Dantonio's team, whose past five losses have come by a total of 13 points.

Northwestern has to go down as one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten, and only needs to beat Illinois at home to finish 9-3. The Gator Bowl looks likely for the Wildcats.