Michigan State linebacker Chris Norman admits he plays the what-if game.
It's what happens when your team loses four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points.
"I know I have, and I'm pretty sure some of my teammates have, too," Norman told ESPN.com. "It's natural to do so with everything that hasn't been going our way. What if this would have happened? What if that would have happened? You can really point out so many things that happened and say, 'Man, if that one thing is different, then the whole season would be different.'"
Northwestern knows the feeling. The Wildcats haven't endured as much misery as Michigan State and, unlike the Spartans, who were pegged by many to win the Big Ten this year, they've exceeded many preseason expectations with a 7-3 record. But they've also held double-digit, second-half leads in all three of their losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan).
Their most painful setback came last Saturday at the Big House, as a desperation pass from Devin Gardner, deflected by Northwestern's Daniel Jones and caught by Roy Roundtree allowed Michigan to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Wolverines won 38-31 in overtime.
"That's football for you," Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile told ESPN.com. "That's what it comes down to sometimes, one or two plays, and just being able to make one more stop or one more block or more tackle. Everyone can play the, 'if this, then that' game."
Odds are the Wildcats or the Spartans will be asking those same questions after their game Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. One of them, though, will be celebrating an important win. Michigan State (5-5, 1-4) is still trying to get bowl eligible, while Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) can improve its bowl position before closing out the season against struggling Illinois.
But these teams easily could be playing for a chance to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game in Indy. Both teams had division front-runners Nebraska and Michigan on the ropes. Both teams squandered fourth-quarter leads against the Huskers and Wolverines, losing by a combined 14 points in those four games.
"That just shows you how close both programs are," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... With the ball being oblong, it sometimes bounces weird, and they've just had some tough bounces. At the end of the day, so have we, but it’s not a pity party. It's football."
Michigan State had an extra week to regroup following its loss to Nebraska, which featured some controversial calls down the stretch. When the Spartans resumed practice, Norman saw a "business-like approach" from his teammates. They know they need at least one win to reach a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season.
Close games and home wins had been Michigan State's hallmarks in 2010 and 2011, when the team won 22 games. The Spartans swept their home schedules in both seasons and went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. A loss Saturday means Michigan State would go winless at home in Big Ten play for the first time since 2006.
"We really want to get at least one [Big Ten] win under our belt in Spartan Stadium," Norman said. "We've done really well here in the past, and it’s something we haven't been able to do this season. It's our last home game, and it's a really good stage that is set for us."
Michigan State's season reminds Mark Dantonio of the 2007 campaign, his first as the team's head coach. The Spartans lost five games by seven points or fewer and sat at 5-5 before winning its final two games.
"That's sort of the same situation we're in right now," Dantonio said. "You always want to finish strong. That's the message sent around here constantly, complete our circles and finish strong."
Fitzgerald on Monday calmly answered questions about the 53-yard pass to Roundtree that set up Northwestern's latest agony. What was the coverage plan? What was the personnel on the play? Should Northwestern have purposely interfered with Roundtree, limiting such a large gain?
But he not surprisingly seemed more eager to talk about the need to respond this week. Northwestern's late-game struggles are an issue that must be addressed, but the team also has rarely, if ever, let painful losses impact its next game.
"We’ve responded in the past, and we're going to need our best response of the year this Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "In a weird sort of way, it's easier to respond when you get knocked down than it is when you have success, in a crazy sort of way. We've won a lot of close games around here, and unfortunately we let one get away Saturday."
He liked the team's energy in Monday's workout and called Tuesday's practice the best of the season. But he also noted Northwestern is facing a Michigan State squad that "very easily could be undefeated."
"We're close," Fitzgerald said. "This young team's growing up. There's no moral victories in our ballclub. There's a lot of frustration in the way that we haven't been able to finish. But what's done is done."
Michigan State knows the feeling.
"Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Norman said. "The same thing happened against Michigan. I guess when we play them, it's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."