EAST LANSING - It's the answer to a question that may never produce an acceptable response this season.
Why can't Michigan State's defense create the same kind of game-changing plays it seemed to thrive on last season en route to an 11-win finish?
"You can't point to one thing,'' said senior linebacker and captain Chris Norman. "It's been penalties and missed opportunities. You can look all over the place and say if we would have don't that different we could have had some different results.''
But the simple fact this season is that those results haven't come the Spartans' way.
Last season, all of the plays the Spartans made on defense produced positive results and helped MSU win games. And when the Spartans made mistakes, had blown assignments or took penalties, those errors didn't ultimately cost the Spartans victories.
This year, whether you want to call it bad timing, poor execution or missed opportunities, the mistakes made on defense have resulted in big plays for the opponent and losses for the Spartans.
It was no different on Saturday, when the Spartans fell to an unimaginable 0-5 at home after its 23-20 loss to Northwestern.
Last season, the Spartans, buoyed by a defense, whose only real fault this season has been lack of quarterback sacks was able to make game-changing plays that led to big wins.
That hasn't been the case in 2012 eventhough the numbers say the Spartans are still at the top of the pack in the Big Ten.
The Spartan defense began its game with Northwestern first in the Big Ten in total defense (288 yards per game), scoring defense (16.3 points per game) and second in pass efficiency defense at 102. Nationally, that put MSU in the Top 10 in both total defense and pass efficiency defense and just outside the Top 10 in scoring defense.
Against the Wildcats, MSU's defense performed pretty much true to form, surrendering 303 yards of total offense, 16 points and just one TD pass.
But where the Spartans failed was in the turnover department. While Northwestern's cause was boosted by two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, MSU's defense couldn't produce a takeaway.
Last season, MSU ended the season tied for second in the Big Ten with a plus-7 in turnover margin. This year, the Spartans took the field against Northwestern with just +0.2 turnover margin good for fifth in the conference and 47th nationally.
Junior defensive end Will Gholston suggested that now matter how well the Spartans are playing defensively, that maybe the unit still needs to do even more.
"I feel like we succeed in getting a stop, a 3-and-out but we just have to capitalize on each and every single opportunity,'' said Gholston, who admitted to having to swallow some tough lessons this season. "The biggest thing I've learned this season, is that anything is truly and deeply possible and that this is a game of seconds, split moments, technique and fundamentals and that if you're a split second behind or a split second too fast, you don't make the play and that has really shown (this season).''
Those seconds seemingly cost MSU at least three solid chances to create turnovers against the Wildcats.
In the second quarter of the first half, on a 3rd-and-7, junior linebacker Kyler Elsworth did a good job of baiting Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter into a bad read and almost had an interception that could have resulted in a pick-6.
Additionally, sophomore free safety Kurtis Drummond had two opportunities for possible picks on 3rd-down situations.
The first came during a 3rd-and-11 on Northwestern's second drive of the game, while the second came on Northwestern's drive that led to the go-ahead and eventual game-winning field goal for the Wildcats, when Drummond got his hands on a 3rd-and-7 Trevor Siemian pass that fell incomplete.
And to add insult to injury, Drummond was part of a blown coverage that led to a 41-yard gain when MSU had Northwestern on their own 36 on the drive that the Wildcats converted into the game-winning field goal.
"Miscommunication between me and whoever the corner was,'' said a frustrated Drummond, who added that he is just as baffled as the other members of MSU's defense as to why the Spartans have not been able to execute a big play on defense when it was needed and could have won a game.
"I think if we knew that, we would solve it,'' Drummond added. "I'm not even sure either (because) there were a lot of plays throughout the game that we could have made.
Added junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis: "We're an elite defense but we're human. Humans make mistakes and it was just a mistake.''
Against Northwestern untimely penalties were also part of that human factor that once again denied the Spartans chances for success.
Whether it was redshirt freshman Shilique Calhoun's facemask penalty that kept a Northwestern drive alive after MSU had forced a punting situation on a 3rd-and-8 play, or the pass interference Johnny Adams was tagged with late in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats scored a touchdown three plays after Calhoun's penalty to go up 20-13 and on the Adams penalty, which occurred on a 2nd-and-10 play, instead of leaving Northwestern in a 3rd-and-10 situation, the Wildcats were able to run off four more plays, which ate up valuable seconds and forced MSU to use its last two timeouts before they eventually got the ball back with just 1:29 left in the game.
"We've had a lot of opportunities to get stops in a game and I think we have a lot of times and we haven't at other times and those are the ones everybody talks about,'' said junior linebacker Max Bullough. "You know we had two or three 3-and-outs before they had that last drive with the penalty and the blown coverage and with that, they're not beating us, we're beating ourselves a little bit. That's just something we need to look at and correct.''
Despite the repeated frustrations of a season that holds a stadium-full of what-ifs, the Spartans will have one last shot to correct things if they can beat Minnesota next Saturday to become bowl eligible for a sixth-straight season.
"I don't see us having a problem at all getting up for the game,'' Drummond said of next weekend's chance at salvaging a season full of unfulfilled expectations. "We've got things to accomplish so I see us going out and competing.''
While competing seemingly hasn't been enough to change this team's fortunes,'' junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell summed up the situation best.
"We need to realize the reality of the situation,'' he said. "We are in a one-game playoff and we have to realize how finite and how serious this situation is. This isn't the situation we pictured ourselves being in but we can only press forward and take care of the business at hand.''
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