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The 2017 Spartans have overachieved — so why does the Northwestern loss feel so deflating?

Turnovers, penalties and missed opportunities have finally caught up to Michigan State.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans were once again locked in a close battle throughout the game with another Big Ten foe this past weekend. This time around it was the Northwestern Wildcats, but the Spartans found themselves on the losing end of a 39-31 final score in triple-overtime.

And, just speaking for myself here, it felt deflating. Hats off to Clayton Thorson, Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern for getting the job done. I don’t want to take anything away from them. But I still feel that Northwestern is not a team that Michigan State should have lost to. With back-to-back games against Penn State and Ohio State, the class of the Big Ten, my confidence is even less high than it was last week.

The Spartans have been living on the edge all season. This is the fifth game in a row that was decided by one score and for the first time in that five-game span, it did not go the Spartans’ way at the end. Every Big Ten opponent has given Michigan State a hard time, whether throughout the game or at the end of it, but it was eventually going to catch up with the Spartans. And this past Saturday was that day.

The miscues were abundant on Saturday. Michigan State committed nine penalties for 84 yards — Northwestern had one flag for nine yards. You won’t win many games when you’re committing that many more fouls than your opponent.

The green and white team also had two egregious turnovers. One was a fumble by Cody White, who had a great game otherwise, at the Northwestern 13-yard line. This was right after LJ Scott fumbled and the Spartans were able to recover. The other was of course Brian Lewerke’s interception to end the game in overtime. This was a terrible decision to throw a jump ball across his body on only second-down.

The defense, a unit I have called “elite” was shredded in overtime. The Wildcats scored in possessions of two plays, four plays and three plays, respectively. That’s inexcusable.

I really don’t need to rehash all of this because Matt did a great job in this week’s edition of The Good, The Bad and The Random. These kind of things are covered in more detail in his article and I suggest you check it out.

But these details are also important to mention because Michigan State continuously shot itself in the foot — don’t even get me started on the two missed field goal attempts.

But we also need to remember expectations for this team. This program was coming off of a 3-9 campaign. This program lost a ton of players to attrition throughout the offseason. This program is chock-full of freshmen and sophomores starting and is extremely young. To tell the truth, the Spartans have overachieved, and as a fan, I think we should be happy with where this team is currently.

Let’s be frank: this is not a team that could make a run to the College Football Playoff. But preseason, this was not even a team we expected to be fighting for a potential Big Ten title. This was not a team many people expected to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. This was a fringe bowl team that the majority of experts expected to win five to seven games. It’s hard not to be impressed with what MSU has accomplished thus far.

So why does this Northwestern loss feel so deflating? It’s because good football teams are supposed to beat lesser teams, and I did think going into the game that Northwestern was a lesser team. And maybe the Spartans aren’t as good as their record indicated. And that’s difficult to take. I took this loss pretty hard, if you can’t tell.

Another reason why this feels deflating (in my eyes) is just because how college football is structured. Again, this team is not and never was a College Football Playoff contender — if the 2017 Spartans somehow made it, they would be dominated worse than the 2015 team. But we’re taught to see a second loss in college football as a negative thing. As a thing that wipes out any chance of national glory. And though that goal was never going to be reached, it is again something that is hard to swallow.

The Spartans can still, though highly unlikely, finish 10-2 and play in a New Year’s Six bowl. They can still win a Big Ten title. All is not lost with this past weekend’s loss. But with an angry Penn State team in town this weekend and a trip to Columbus looming, I think 8-4 is the most likely outcome.

Let’s keep in mind how tough the Spartans play Ohio State, though. I would not write that game off at all. MSU and OSU have split the last six games overall with three wins a piece, and MSU has won two in a row in Columbus. With that said, both Penn State and Ohio State will be extreme challenges for the young Spartans.

The gist of the article is this: The Spartans have overachieved and the fanbase should be pleased, but this team is still not quite where I thought it was. The Northwestern loss feels deflating and it was a missed opportunity. Let’s hope Michigan State is able to bounce back.