ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When a defense keeps a Denard Robinson offense from scoring a touchdown, it is supposed to win.
But these are trying times at Michigan State. A first down or two is an offensive explosive these days.
Four Michigan field goals, including a 38-yard game winner by Brendan Gibbons with five seconds remaining, was enough for a 12-10 Wolverines victory. It snapped Michigan State’s four-year winning streak in the bitterest of rivalries.
The two-point loss leaves the Spartans (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) in danger of not even making a bowl game for the first time in Mark Dantonio’s six years as coach. They must win at least two of their final four games — at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, vs. Northwestern and at Minnesota — to be eligible for a bowl.
It’s a far cry from the last two years when they won 11 games while tying for the Big Ten championship in 2010 and winning the Legends Division title in 2011. There will be no Big Ten title, no division title and, yes, for the 25th consecutive year, no Rose Bowl appearance this season.
Linebacker Max Bullough called losing to Michigan “the lowest low.”
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell said, “It’s so personal for everybody on this team and Spartan fans everywhere. It’s heartbreaking.”
Dantonio was 4-1 against the Wolverines, including 2-0 at Michigan Stadium, before having this one ripped away at the end. He’ll have to wait until Nov. 2, 2013 when they meet again in East Lansing.
“It’ll never be over,” Dantonio said. “We’ll play again. That’s the positive. It’s not like the series is ending.”
It appeared that another one of Dantonio’s gutsy calls had put the Spartans in position to make it five in a row over the Wolverines for the first time in school history.
On fourth-and-9 from MSU’s 23-yard line, Dantonio rolled the dice with a fake punt that gained 26 yards with about 10½ minutes remaining and his team trailing 9-7. The Spartans drove down, got to the 2-yard line, but had to settle for a 19-yard, go-ahead field goal with 5:48 to go.
Michigan State then had a chance to run the clock out after forcing a punt and getting the ball at its 8-yard line with 3:07 left.
An incomplete pass stopped the clock on second down, which ended up giving Michigan a little more time to set up the winning kick. The call will be second-guessed — some will say the Spartans should have run it to force U-M to use a timeout — but Dantonio had a good explanation.
“You’ve got to play to win,” he said. “I told coach Roushar (offensive coordinator Dan) Roushar, ‘Play to win. If you’ve got to throw it here, throw it.’
“We needed to try to get a first down. If we get a first down there, the game is probably over.”
The Spartans didn’t, of course, because their offense just isn’t capable of making big plays in the big moments right now. As a result, Robinson and the Wolverines got one more chance and all they needed to do was get the ball into field-goal range.
This is the way it’s going for Michigan State, which has lost three conference games by a total of six points (17-16 to Ohio State, 19-16 in two overtimes to Iowa).
The Spartans made an impressive 80-yard drive for a touchdown early in the third quarter, but for the most part, the offense continued to stall, as it has most of the season. Six of its 11 possessions were three-and-out.
“We need to turn our field goals into touchdowns,” Maxwell said. “That starts right here. I’ll take the blame for that.”
Michigan State certainly misses Maxwell’s predecessor, Kirk Cousins, but these struggles are much bigger than one player. But Roushar is under fire for his game-in and game-out play-calling.
The revamped receiving corps showed promise at times Saturday, but it has been far too inconsistent overall.
The offensive line didn’t open up enough holes for running back Le’Veon Bell, who went from a Heisman Trophy candidate the first week of September to being held to 2.6 yards per carry by the Wolverines. Bell finished with 68 yards on 26 attempts.
Nevertheless, thanks to their defense, the Spartans were still in position to win their biggest game of the year if they could have only made another play at the right time.
“Shoulda, coulda doesn’t really get it,” Dantonio said.
The coach was just beginning his postgame news conference in the visitor’s interview room when a Michigan State banner, taped to the wall behind him, started to fall down.
It seemed a little symbolic. It sort of summed up the season so far.