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The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau breaks down Spartans' first Big Ten loss of the season. Matt Charboneau

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Evanston, Ill. —  Throughout Michigan State’s four-game winning streak, coach Mark Dantonio talked often about grit and finding ways to win.

In that stretch, the Spartans won all four games by one score or less, getting it done when they needed to in order to open Big Ten play unbeaten and tied atop the East Division.

On Saturday at Northwestern, there were big plays late, including an 88-yard drive in the final minutes to tie the game and send it to overtime, but in the end, the missed opportunities proved too much to overcome as the Wildcats pulled off the upset, knocking off No. 16 Michigan State, 39-31, in triple-overtime in front of 39,369 at Ryan Field.

“I think we left points off the board,” Dantonio said. “Two field goals hitting the bar, those are inches. We didn’t find the inches. I think we had three shots downfield where we’re inches away from making the play. We didn’t find the inches today. At times we did, but to win football games we need to find the inches. If we make the (last) field goal we’re playing to win at the end of the game.”

That last field goal was a 32-yard attempt by Matt Coghlin late in the fourth quarter that banged off the right upright when Michigan State (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) had a chance to cut Northwestern’s 17-10 lead.

BOX SCORE: Northwestern 39, Michigan State 31, (3OT)

But it was hardly the only missed play that haunted the Spartans. There was Coghlin’s 51-yard kick in the third quarter that hit the upright, Cody White’s fumble inside the Northwestern 10 in the first half, a dropped interception by Josiah Scott in the second quarter and Brian Lewerke overshooting deep balls three different times — to Darrell Stewart, Felton Davis and Cam Chambers — when all three likely would have been touchdowns.

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“I think that’s the game right there,” Lewerke said. “I missed at least two posts and a fade route near the end. Obviously, we need to hit those plays and if you do you don’t go to overtime.”

Getting to overtime, however, was where Lewerke and the offense shined.

Trailing 17-10 with 3:14 to play, Lewerke got rolling, methodically moving the Spartans down the field until they faced a fourth-and-4 from the Northwestern 30. Lewerke ran for 5 yards on that play then flipped a ball to Stewart for 12 yards.

More:  Lewerke's record-setting day for MSU marred by misses

On the next play, Lewerke hit Davis for an acrobatic 13-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 25 seconds to play.

“Just secure the ball, that’s the main thing,” Davis said. “You’ve got to secure the ball for it to be a completion. Most of the time you know where you are on the field when you jump and most of the time your feet will be in-bounds. The main thing is secure the catch.”

The first two overtimes went back and forth as each offense was clicking.

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Brian Lewerke, Chris Frey, Felton Davis and Joe Bachie discuss Spartans' first defeat in Big Ten play. Matt Charboneau

Northwestern (5-3, 3-2) got a 14-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Cameron Green on the second play from scrimmage to go up 24-17, but Michigan State answered with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke to Davis to tie the game at 24. In the second overtime, Michigan State scored first on an 11-yard pass from Lewerke to Davis and Northwestern tied the game at 31 with a 3-yard run from Jackson.

In the third overtime, Northwestern faced a third-and-7 from the 22 but got a touchdown pass on that play from Thorson to Flynn Nagel and a two-point throw from Thorson to Green.

That’s when Michigan State made its final mistake as Lewerke fumbled on second down but scooped up the ball and tried to throw a prayer to Matt Sokol that was intercepted by Northwestern’s Nate Hall to end the game.

“Obviously, I probably shouldn’t throw it in that situation,” Lewerke said.

It spoiled a record day for Lewerke, who was 39-for-57 for 445 yards and four touchdowns. He set program records in a single game for passing yards, total offense (475) and completions. His four touchdowns were also a career-high for the sophomore.

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Michigan State coach discusses Spartans' first defeat in Big Ten play, a 39-31 loss to Northwestern in triple overtime. Matt Charboneau

“I felt like Lewerke played outstanding,” Dantonio said. “Probably needs to throw the ball away at the end of the game, but he’s trying to make a play.”

More: ​Spartans’ defense proves vulnerable against Wildcats

The offensive numbers were impressive for Michigan State as White had nine catches for a career-high 165 yards and two touchdowns while Stewart had career-highs in catches (11) and yards (98). Davis finished with eight catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was a really hard-fought, defensive game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It will be lost in the final stats, but tonight it was tough to gain inches on either side. It was a game of big plays.

“To see the way somebody had to make a defensive stop and the way we got it done was great and credit to our guys.”

Thorson finished with 356 passing yards for the Wildcats, which beat Michigan State at home for the first time since 2001.

More: ​MSU kept running, but scored when offense opened up

ichigan State jumped out early, getting a 6-yard TD pass from Lewerke to White on the first drive then adding a 46-yard field goal from Coghlin to go up 10-0 in the second quarter. But Northwestern got a 1-yard run from Thorson and a 35-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander with four seconds left in the first half to tie the score at 10.

Northwestern took a 17-10 lead with 10:49 to play on a 12-yard pass from running back Justin Jackson to Bennett Skowronek before Michigan State put together the late drive to tie the game.

“It’s unfortunate and very disappointing,” Dantonio said. “But again, I go back in the locker room and there are a lot of disappointed guys. But credit Northwestern and the game they played. Our guys kept playing but sometimes you’ve got to take the other end of the stick.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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Penn State at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Nov. 4, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Penn State 7-1, 4-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-2, 4-1

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