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East Lansing — Michigan State lost to Northwestern for the third straight time on Saturday, but its problems go much deeper than that.

The Spartans have an offense that continues to lack any consistency or ability to make plays in crunch time and a defense, while dominant against the run, has routinely given up chunks of yardage through the air. Add in a rash of injuries and some questionable play-calling and Michigan State is five games into the season wondering what’s next.

The latest head-scratcher was Saturday’s 29-19 loss at Northwestern, a team that had lost three straight coming in and didn’t score a single point in the second half of last week’s loss to Michigan when it blew a 17-0 lead.

BOX SCORE: Northwestern 29, Michigan State 19

No. 20 Michigan State (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) managed to take the lead late in the third quarter on Felton Davis’ 3-yard touchdown catch, but on the ensuing drive, Northwestern marched 75 yards in less than four minutes to retake the lead on a 21-yard strike from Clayton Thorson to Cameron Green. It was a lead the Wildcats wouldn’t relinquish.

“This is a football team that didn’t get it done. That’s the bottom line,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “As close as the game was at the end of game it felt like it was just getting fouled up, didn’t it? It felt like it was just spinning out of control. Some things we had control over and we can change. Those are the things that I’m frustrated about.”

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Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio gives his thoughts on his team's performance in Saturday's loss. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

The offense would seem to be something the Spartans could control, but after the Wildcats (2-3, 2-1) took the fourth-quarter lead, Michigan State punted twice and turned the ball over on downs twice. The first three drives totaled just 11 yards while the final drive stalled after tight end Matt Sokol fell at the Northwestern 1 and quarterback Brian Lewerke’s pass to Davis sailed over the senior receiver’s head.

The final sequence summed up the offense on Saturday — and for the season, for that matter — as a unit that has had some decent numbers but can’t put the ball in the end zone when it matters most.

“The problem is execution and overall offense,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Doesn't matter if we're backed up on our own goal line or the 1-yard line, we need to execute, simple as that.”

It’s tougher to do with the number of injuries the Spartans have, and Warner didn’t let himself off the hook when asked how much play-calling impacts things.

“A lot, evidently,” Warner said. “We've got to find a way to call plays that work. We've been searching for that. We've won three games and I've been searching for it from every game, win or lose, but I'll take responsibility for that.”

It wasn’t all on the offense as the defense held Northwestern to eight yards rushing but did little to contain Thorson, who was 31-for-47 passing for 373 yards and three touchdowns while adding a rushing touchdown in the final minutes.

“There were a couple long ones that he put right on the money when we were in good coverage,” MSU defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “Tre Person was in good coverage, Tyriq Thompson was in good coverage, and he put it right on the money. We couldn't get our hand on the football.”

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Michigan State assistants Dave Warner and Mike Tressel talk the offense and defense's performance in Saturday's loss. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

It was the big play that was key for the Wildcats in the first half, scoring on back-to-back drives that totaled four plays and little more than a minute on the clock. The first came on a 77-yard strike from Thorson to Kyric McGowan as Michigan State failed to cover the Wildcats receiver. McGowan went untouched down the sideline to give Northwestern a 7-3 lead with 18 seconds left in the first quarter.

After Michigan State failed to pick up a first down on its next possession, Northwestern took just two plays to score again as Thorson connected with JJ Jefferson for a 34-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 14-3 lead with 13:58 left in the second quarter.

“We had a couple blown assignments that hurt us in end,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We gotta play four quarters. Our goal this week, at the top of the list, was one play, one focus. Every week we focus on something and this week it was one play at a time. Do your job on that play. People made mistakes and they took advantage.”

Northwestern took advantage enough to win for the third time in the series and third straight time at Spartan Stadium.

“For us to be resilient down the stretch I think is starting to show a little bit of our maturity growing and our character always being the backbone of who we are,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You know we lost some momentum there in the third quarter, but we were able to seize it back, and we've been really close the last three weeks. To come in here against an outstanding football team and get the win, I'm incredibly proud of our guys.”

Michigan State got two Matt Coghlin field goals in the first half, but that as it.

In the third quarter, things began to shift. First, Davis scored on a 48-yard run and later in the third quarter he put the Spartans ahead with his touchdown grab.

However, that was it for any sort of offensive rhythm.

Lewerke threw his sixth interception of the season and finished with 329 yards but was just 31-for-51 while the Spartans gained only 96 yards on the ground and were just 4-for-15 on third down.

“We've got to stay positive,” Lewerke said. “Coach D always says it, it can always be worse. Every time you lose a game you're going to be a little frustrated, especially against a team I thought we had a chance to beat. But things happen, and we move on. But yeah, I'm a bit frustrated. We're going to keep going and keep it positive going into next week.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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