Originally written on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 9/23/14
It's easy enough to imagine an alternative universe in which the Michigan State-Northwestern matchup is for a spot in the Big Ten title game. A pass broken up here, a different call there - and maybe the Spartans and Wildcats would have a lot more to play for. "We've got to find a way to coach our guys to make a couple more plays," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We're close to being a champion. We're not there yet, but we're close." When Michigan State hosts Northwestern on Saturday, pride and bowl position will be on the line and that's about it. The Wildcats lost to Michigan in overtime last weekend to fall two games out of first place in the Legends Division with two to play. The Spartans, meanwhile, are another game back after losing too many close ones during the Big Ten season. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) needs at least a split of its last two regular-season games to become bowl eligible - after starting the season with Rose Bowl aspirations. All six of the Spartans' conference games have been decided by four points or fewer. "A game of inches, I guess," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "The game is never over, I guess, until it's over. We're trying to look at the end game situations and cover every possible end game situation that we can fathom, basically, because they all seem to be occurring across the country. Not just here, but across the country." Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) certainly knows all about that. The Wildcats were on the verge of a tremendous victory at Michigan when Devin Gardner heaved a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree to set up the Wolverines' tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation. Michigan went on to win 38-31. "If I'm not a coach and I'm just a fan, that was a heck of a Big Ten fight," Fitzgerald said. Michigan State had an open date last weekend, but the Spartans nearly threw their own wrench into the division title race between Michigan and Nebraska when they led the Cornhuskers by 10 points in the fourth quarter two weeks ago. Nebraska rallied and took advantage of a late pass interference call to win 28-24. So Michigan State and Northwestern share similar frustrations at this point. "I think we have that in common," Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "Just kind of having that 'so close' feeling. If they're working like we're working, they're going to be working hard. Any time you have a close loss like that, that kind of keeps you going and you dig a little deeper." Michigan State has been preparing to contend with Northwestern's quarterbacking duo of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian - part of an offense that ran for 248 yards at Michigan. "You always look at Northwestern, you're looking at a well-coached team that puts an emphasis on toughness, and a very fast pace on offense using a two-quarterback system with Siemian and Colter," Dantonio said. "Doing a nice job with the option, the passing game as well, very exciting offense." The Spartans have also run the ball well, but in a more conventional fashion than Northwestern. That's one difference between these two teams. Michigan State leans largely on running back Le'Veon Bell, who has rushed for 1,249 yards this season. "Tough times don't last, tough people do, and this is a tough, tough team we're playing this week." Fitzgerald said. "Le'Veon is a great player. ... We've got our hands full. That's what's cool about playing Big Ten football. You don't have time to have a pity party. You've got to get back to work."

Robert Griffin III 'guaranteed' to be back in Week 11

Urlacher: Cutler paid like elite QB, hasn’t produced like one

Hoyer doesn’t think about getting benched for Manziel

Cardinals kicker blew $1,500 signing bonus on headphones

Ainge: Draft lottery reform would be 'better for the game'

Royals take Game 2 to even series with Giants


Report: Roger Goodell will have to testify in Ray Rice case

Blake Griffin accused of slapping man in Las Vegas club

Ronda Rousey to face Cat Zingano at UFC 182

Report: Zach Mettenberger to start for Titans over Locker

LaMarr Woodley likely done for season with biceps injury

Report: Some Seahawks think Wilson isn’t 'black enough'

Falcons make huge mistake with London infographic

DeMarco Murry surprises Cowboys linemen with iMacs

Jimbo Fisher's son reps for Winston on 'Superhero Day'

WATCH: Steve Ballmer freaks out while shown on Jumbotron

AUDIO: Rex Ryan pranks Sammy Watkins on conference call

Top storyline for each Week 8 NFL game

WATCH: Giants pitcher yells at Salvador Perez after HR

Will Muschamp's head coaching job posted on Craigslist

Miss California USA would like to date Eric Hosmer

WATCH: Eric Bledsoe sends Clipper flying with sick move

Kiffin's mom fears for son's safety in return to Tennessee

WATCH: Penguins perform 'O Canada' following tragedy

College Football News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

Brian Urlacher rips Jay Cutler

Top NFL storylines: Week 8

Kiffin's mom worried for son's safety

Report: Goodell will have to testify

Penguins do 'O Canada' following tragedy

UEFA Champions League midway report: Groups A – D

Porn star: No one parties like Janikowski

Report: Expect Florida to make a run at Bob Stoops

The San Francisco Giants are zombies

10 bold predictions for NFL Week 8

Pitcher's wife leaves generous tip

Nicklaus defends Jameis Winston

Today's Best Stuff
For Bloggers

Join the Yardbarker Network for more promotion, traffic, and money.

Company Info
What is Yardbarker?

Yardbarker is the largest network of sports blogs and pro athlete blogs on the web. This site is the hub of the Yardbarker Network, where our editors and algorithms curate the best sports content from our network and beyond.