One bitter loss after another wiped out all those high hopes Northwestern had. Now, the Wildcats can forget about a bowl bid, too.
Northwestern fell out of postseason contention with a 30-6 loss to No. 13 Michigan State on Saturday, a scenario few would have envisioned when this season began.
"I didn't think it was going to go this way, but you never know," defensive end Tyler Scott said.
Connor Cook threw for a career-high 293 yards, Jeremy Langford ran for 150, and the Spartans clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game.
Cook threw for two touchdowns. Langford ran for two scores, and Michigan State (10-1, 7-0) reached the conference championship game for the second time in three years.
Langford ran 20 yards untouched for the game's first touchdown in the second quarter. He sealed it with a 37-yard scoring run in the fourth after Kurtis Drummond picked off a short pass by Trevor Siemian, sending Michigan State to its seventh straight win and Northwestern (4-7, 0-7) to its seventh loss in a row.
"It's definitely been a rough experience," Scott said. "You never want to lose a game, but to lose seven in a row, it's challenging."
It's stunning, considering the expectations they had.
Northwestern came in off a 10-win season and was looking to show it can beat the best in the Big Ten. Instead, the Wildcats will have to win at Illinois next week to avoid going winless in conference play.
Cook completed 16 of 24 passes on a bone-chilling and windy day, including an 87-yard TD to Bennie Fowler on a one-handed grab in the second quarter and a 15-yard scoring strike to Josiah Price in the third.
Drummond had two interceptions, and the Spartans closed in on 11 wins for the third time in four seasons. They're also eyeing their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 26 years.
Before that, there's a home game against Minnesota. Then, they head to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
Safety Isaiah Lewis knocked Northwestern's Kain Colter out of the game with a big hit as he tried to catch a pass early in the first quarter, resulting in a targeting penalty and an ejection.
Things didn't get much better for the Wildcats after that, and they saw their bowl hopes get killed after making one the previous five years.
"The Year '13 is over here in a week — and good riddance," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "There's something about that number I don't like."
With Colter injured, Trevor Siemian carried the load at quarterback and was 25 of 43 with two interceptions.
The Wildcats managed just 80 yards rushing, and their freefall continued after a 4-0 start.
The tailspin began when they blew a 10-point lead in a 10-point loss to Ohio State, and they haven't been the same since. They got blown out at Wisconsin and suffered a string of gut-wrenching losses, whether they were losing on a last-second heave in regulation to Nebraska or falling in triple overtime to Michigan last week.
They've also lost key players to injuries, most notably top running back Venric Mark to a broken ankle. Now, they're in a spot they never envisioned, particularly after they won the first four.
"This is as beat up of a team as I've ever had to coach," Fitzgerald said.
Things took a bad turn for Northwestern in this one when Colter got drilled by Lewis, resulting in what Spartans coach Mark Dantonio thought was an unwarranted ejection.
"I saw a hit on the shoulder," Dantonio said. "That's what I saw."
Colter stayed down for a few moments and walked off clutching his stomach or arm. He did not return, and his status for next week is in question.
Jeff Budzien kicked a 22-yard field goal on that drive to give the Wildcats a 3-0 lead, but Michigan State went ahead midway through the second when Langford ran 20 yards untouched to the end zone.
Fowler added to the lead on Michigan State's next possession when he reached back for a one-handed grab along the left sideline as Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris slipped. The result was an 87-yard touchdown that made it 14-3 with 4:31 left in the half.
Northwestern then drove from its 28 to the 3 but was forced to settle for another field goal by Budzien, cutting the deficit to eight with just under two minutes remaining in the second quarter.