EAST LANSING, Mich. - In suffering through four turnovers, Michigan State eventually sent their Gator Bowl hopes turning over in a grave, losing to Northwestern, 23-20 on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Northwestern's Jeff Budzien kicked a 27-yard field goal with 7:30 remaining, and the Wildcasts were able to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead.
Northwestern, 8-3, has all but cemented a trip to a Florida bowl, probably the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville. Sources indicated that Michigan State would have nudged ahead of Northwestern and into the Gator Bowl if the Spartans had defeated Northwestern. Instead, at 5-6, Michigan State needs a bowl win next week at Minnesota in order to get any bowl bid at all.
Michigan State would most likely be in line for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. (Dec. 29), against a Big 12 opponent, if the Spartans can finish the season with a victory - something that suddenly seems difficult to do following another tight, heartbreaking defeat in Big Ten play.
"Very important," MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said of next week's game against the Gophers. "We need to go to a bowl game. We have played better away from home so maybe that's the omen this year. We need to go to Minnesota with the mindset and right idea to get it done. I don't care what bowl it is, but that has to be the focus."
All seven of Michigan State's conference games have been decided by four points or fewer.
"You know it is crazy how we just keep coming up short," said Le'veon Bell, who rushed for 133 yards.
"A bowl game would definitely be beneficial to the program," said linebacker Denicos Allen. "We could definitely use the extra practice, the extra competition. You know we are a young team so we need all the experience we can this year going into next year."
"We've got to win, we've got to win," said junior linebacker Max Bullough. "We have to make it to a bowl game. We have to get past this. We have to come back every week and play strong even if we lost. There is never any quit here and there won't be any next week."
It was Northwestern's first win over Michigan State since 2007.
MSU fumbled at the 1-yard on a QB sneak, again at the end of a long completion in the second half, and QB Andrew Maxwell threw two interceptions. The first INT, caused by a failed blitz pick-up by RB Le'Veon Bell was returned for a TD early in the third quarter.
"We always talk about turnovers and how important they are and I think that is the story of the game," Dantonio said. "We lost 12 points in the first half due to mistakes and turnovers and then throw an interception in the beginning of the second half due to blown protection and it goes for a touchdown. Our defense gets no turnovers and they come up with four, which makes it very difficult to win. We out-rushed them, we had more first downs, more passing yards and third-down conversions, but you can't overcome mistakes."
Northwestern's Trevor Siemian threw for 165 yards, including a 41-yard pass to Dan Vitale that helped set up the winning kick.
Northwestern lost fourth-quarter leads in gut-wrenching losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, but this time Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell threw four straight incompletions to seal the Spartans' fate.
The Wildcats spoiled Michigan State's home finale despite what was announced as an upper extremity injury to running back Venric Mark, who didn't play in the second half. Siemian and Kain Colter split time at quarterback for the Wildcats. Colter went 13 of 20 for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Northwestern led 13-5 early in the third quarter after David Nwabuisi returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown. Maxwell seemed shaken up on the play, but he was able to keep playing and quickly led the Spartans on a sharp 65-yard drive that ended with his 15-yard scoring pass to Aaron Burbridge. A 2-point conversion pass to Keith Mumphery tied it at 13.
Colter's 6-yard touchdown pass to Tim Riley gave Northwestern a 20-13 lead, but the Spartans tied it again on a 6-yard scoring pass from Maxwell to Tony Lippett with 9:22 left in the fourth.
Michigan State lost the ball twice inside the Northwestern 5-yard line in the first half. A fumble on the snap gave the Wildcats the ball at their own 2 late in the first quarter, but Colter was hit in the end zone by Max Bullough and William Gholston for a safety that made it 3-2.
Michigan State led 5-3 in the second and had the ball at the Northwestern 1, but star running back Le'Veon Bell was dropped for a loss of 3 on fourth down.
The Wildcats took a 6-5 lead into halftime when Budzien made a 43-yard field goal in the final minute of the quarter, and Michigan State's Dan Conroy missed from 37 at the other end.