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 Gibbonswith five seconds remaining, was enough to end Michigan States four-year winning streak in the bitterest of rivalries.
The 12-10 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 Dantonios 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.
Its 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, Its so personal for everybody on this team and Spartan fans everywhere. Its heartbreaking.
Dantonio was 4-1 against the Wolverines, including 2-0 at Michigan Stadium, before having this one ripped away at the end.
He cant wait for Nov. 2, 2013, when they meet again in East Lansing.
Itll never be over, Dantonio said. Well play again. Thats the positive. Its not like the series is ending.
It appeared that another one of Dantonios gutsy calls had put the Spartans in position to make it five straight over the Wolverines for the first time in school history.
On fourth-and-9 from MSUs 23-yard line, Dantonio rolled the dice with a fake punt that gained 26 yards with about 10 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 upgiving Michigana little more time to set up the winning kick. The callwill be second-guessed some will say the Spartans should have run it to force U-Mto use a timeout butDantonio had a good explanation.
Youve got to play to win, he said. I told coach Roushar (offensive coordinator Dan Roushar), Play to win. If youve 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.
They didnt, of course, because their offense just isnt 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 its 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 their 11 possessions were three-and-out.
We need to turn our field goals into touchdowns, Maxwell said. That starts right here. Ill take the blame for that.
Michigan State certainly misses Maxwells predecessor, Kirk Cousins, but these struggles are much bigger than one player.
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 didnt open up enough holes for running back LeVeon 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 doesnt really get it, Dantonio said.
The coach was just beginning his post-game news conference in the visitors 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.