- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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For much of the season, crunch time has ended up breaking Michigan State's back.
The Spartans lost to Ohio State when they couldn't get a defensive stop at the end of the game. They allowed a touchdown to Iowa in the final minute before losing in double overtime. A couple of first downs on their final drive at Michigan would have won the game; instead, the Wolverines kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. In all, Michigan State's three Big Ten losses came by a total of six points.
That's why last week's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin felt so encouraging. The Spartans flipped the script by driving for a late game-tying touchdown before making the necessary plays in the extra period.
"We know we're a good football team; we just haven't been able to finish a lot of games," offensive lineman Chris McDonald told ESPN.com "So that win at Wisconsin gave us a confidence that we can win and that we should be able to finish. It has made a lot of difference for us this week."
Head coach Mark Dantonio said he hoped the Wisconsin win could become a defining moment for this team.
"It sent a great message to our football team that if you just keep playing, good things can happen," Dantonio said. "It sent a message to our coaches and everybody involved in the program that our chemistry is good, our mindset is good."
Dantonio's rallying cry for the rest of the season is simple: Finish. Finish drives, finish games and finish the season strong, beginning with this week's game at home against Legends Division front-runner Nebraska.
Last week at this time, there were legitimate concerns about whether the Spartans (5-4) could even make it to a bowl game this year. The Wisconsin win showed that this team isn't done fighting.
"If things go our way and we win out, hopefully we can still make it to the Big Ten championship game," wide receiver Bennie Fowler told ESPN.com. "We've still got to take it one game at a time. But November is a very important month. We take pride around here in winning in November."
Michigan State would need to not only win its final three games -- it closes with Northwestern at home and Minnesota on the road after a bye week -- but also receive a lot of help to win the Legends title. It currently trails both Nebraska and Michigan by two games in the standings and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Wolverines.
But beating Nebraska this week would at the very least open up the possibility of a strong finish after this season's disappointing start. And most of that will depend on the offense.
The Spartans' defense has been there all season. But the offense has produced only one touchdown in each of its three Big Ten losses. Saturday's game was hardly a breakout, as Michigan State didn't reach the end zone until 68 seconds were left in regulation. But the way quarterback Andrew Maxwell led a 12-play, 75-yard drive on the road to tie the game offered some inspiration.
"I think that's every quarterback's dream," Dantonio said. "It should provide some momentum for him and boost his confidence. I think he's very, very capable of doing those things consistently."
It was also a great sign that Maxwell's game-winning pass in overtime went to Fowler, a guy who struggled early in the year and lost his starting job before bouncing back.
"I'm proud of the way I responded," Fowler said.
Maybe Fowler can serve as a symbol for this entire team. Things haven't gone the way Michigan State hoped this year. But the Spartans hope to respond as we enter the crunch time of the season.