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November 22, 2013

Could this year's Spartans be next year's Cats?


They entered the season with Rose Bowl aspirations. They were ranked in the preseason Top 25, coming off of a bowl victory and double-digit wins the year before.

They got off to a strong start in non-conference play, but then lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State to open the Big Ten season. From there, nothing seemed to go their way and their season quickly spiraled down the drain. They lost game after game by the slimmest of margins and soon they were known as the most disappointing team in the conference.

Sound familiar? It should.

But we're not talking about the 2013 Northwestern Wildcats. This is the story of the 2012 Michigan State Spartans.

If the reeling Wildcats are looking for a silver lining to what has been a disastrous season, they need only to look across the field at a Spartan team that can serve as a role model on how to bounce back from oblivion.

"They (Northwestern) are identical to us last year," said Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. "They will be right there at the end on the verge, the doorstep of winning and something doesn't fall their way.

"You see the resilience in them each and every week. They'll lose a heartbreaker and then they'll come out the next week and they'll be playing a really good team tough the entire game and then actually lose another heartbreaker."

Cook knows exactly what he's talking about. He and his fellow Spartans lived through it the year before.

In the 2012 preseason, Michigan State was ranked 13th in the country. The Spartans went 3-1 in non-conference play and then dropped a hard-fought 17-16 contest to Ohio State in their Big Ten opener. It was also the beginning of trend -- they wound up losing five conference games by a combined total of 13 points, including a 23-20 loss to Northwestern in East Lansing. Michigan State finished 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten), a far cry from what the program's fans expected at the outset of the season.

Northwestern has followed a very similar path this season. The Wildcats were ranked 22nd before the season and rose to No. 16 after a 4-0 start. Then, in the Big Ten opener, they too fell victim to Ohio State in a game that ended 40-30 but was a three-point game with two minutes to go and Northwestern holding the ball in Buckeye territory.

That started the six-game slide the Cats are still trying to snap. What makes the consecutive losses even more miserable is that all but one, a 35-6 loss to Wisconsin, was a nail-biter that could have easily gone the other way. They lost by three to Minnesota, in overtime to Iowa, on a Hail Mary on the final play against Nebraska and in three overtimes to Michigan.

If there is a painful way to lose a game, this Northwestern team has found it.

Still, no one has questioned the Wildcats effort. In fact, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough has been impressed with Northwestern's resilience in the face of so many emotional losses.

"When I look at Northwestern, I think they have lost a lot of unfortunate games, similar to what went through last year," said the Spartans' captain. "Personally, I know that Northwestern is going to be good whether they are 0-6 or 6-0, so I am going to be ready to play and this team will be ready to play."

During his senior speech before the start of the season, Bullough spoke at length about the resiliency of his teammates in the face of disappointment in 2012, according to SpartanMag.com associate editor Paul Konyndyk. The three-year starter said he took as much pride in how his team responded to heartbreak in 2012 as anything Michigan State had accomplished during his career, which included a Big Ten title in 2010 and a Legends Division title and bowl victory over SEC divisional championship Georgia in 2011.

"Northwestern fans are looking at the all of the ways their team has lost games they could have easily won," said Konydyk. "Michigan State fans did the same thing last year…

"The fact that Northwestern continues compete and put itself in a position to win games speaks to the character of the football team and the program that Pat Fitzgerald has built. There are a lot of teams in college football that don't have the character to do what Northwestern has in the face of overwhelming disappointment."

Konydyk thinks that the adversity Michigan State faced during the 2012 season brought the team closer together this year. It particularly helped the Spartans early in the season, when they faced a firestorm of criticism for their inept offense.

Now, in November, the month when championships are won, the Spartans find themselves ranked 13th at 9-1 (6-0) and need only to beat Northwestern to earn a berth in the Big Ten championship game against No. 3 Ohio State.

It was the resolve the Spartans showed last season that steeled them for their title run in 2013. Northwestern fans certainly hope that the Wildcats can follow the same blueprint next season.



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