NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Northwestern Wildcats hope they can finally move on from their fourth-quarter struggles.
After holding on for a 23-20 victory over Michigan State on Saturday, the Wildcats are very much in the mix for a quality bowl bid at the end of the season.
Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) blew fourth-quarter leads in losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, so the Wildcats had reason to be anxious when Michigan State took over at its own 20-yard line with 1:29 remaining and needing a field goal to tie.
But Andrew Maxwell threw four straight incompletions, enabling Northwestern to close out the victory. The win came a week after an excruciating loss in overtime to Michigan after the Wildcats had lost the lead in the final seconds of regulation.
“We felt a little crushed last week but with a win this week we’re hoping we can latch onto that momentum and get two more wins,” tight end Dan Vitale said. “Personally, I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and I think good things are going to happen. We’re getting more and more confidence each game.”
Now Northwestern can state its case even further to bowl representatives next weekend against Illinois in the regular-season finale. Among Big Ten teams, only Ohio State and Nebraska have more overall victories than Northwestern — and the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play.
Northwestern has a chance to play in a January bowl for the third time in four seasons.
“When you’ve had some tough defeats like we’ve had, you’ve got to shut out the noise and the negativity,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “With the 24-hour news cycle and social media, it’s tough on our guys; it’s hard as it’s ever been. But we talked about that.”
The Wildcats held firm after their loss to Michigan, in which they allowed a 53-yard pass in the final seconds of the regulation that set up the Wolverines’ tying field goal. Against the Spartans, Jeff Budzien kicked a 27-yard field goal with 7:30 remaining to give Northwestern a 23-20 lead.
Michigan State’s final chance came in the last couple minutes. Fitzgerald was willing to punt to the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) on fourth-and-1 from the Northwestern 49.
The Wildcats’ defense rewarded the coach for his confidence.
“To see the way that the program has responded I think is a terrific credit to our players. They’ve stayed the course,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to set things out for them as far as a vision and a belief system and a value system. But it takes them to own it, it takes them to manage it every day, and it takes them to hold each other accountable to the Wildcat way, and they’ve done that.”
Michigan State enjoyed its own renaissance in 2010 and 2011, but this year has been rough. After beginning the season with Rose Bowl aspirations, the Spartans now need to win at Minnesota next weekend just to become bowl eligible.
All seven of Michigan State’s conference games this year have been decided by four points or fewer. They’ll need a win in the last one, no matter what the margin.
“You can only live in the present and the future,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “We have to get ready for Minnesota and are in a situation to be playing for a bowl game. Credit Northwestern for making plays. I think they played extremely hard and they always do.”
The Wildcats don’t need to worry about making a bowl — but every additional victory helps their case for moving up in the pecking order.
“We had a big pit in our stomach, a lot of pain in our stomach after last week,” Vitale said. “I think we released a lot of demons this game and it felt great to win.”
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