EAST LANSING - Michigan State football's bowl fate most likely comes down to one game.
Pull off the upset on Saturday, and the Spartans extend their season by another month. Lose … and there may still be faint hope.
A far cry from chasing a national championship, as Mel Tucker and his players promoted in August. An equally long way from the four-game losing streak in which football in December seemed improbable.
"The minimum standard," Mark Dantonio preached a little less than three years ago, of getting to six wins and a bowl berth, hangs in the balance.
"This is the last game on our schedule," quarterback Payton Thorne said Tuesday. "We got a lot of guys that this could be their last game, and they want to play another game. They don't want this to be the last game of football they ever play in their life. And then for the young guys, we still have something to prove."
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For the Spartans (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten), that regular-season finale is on the road against 10th-ranked Penn State (9-2, 6-2). Kickoff is 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania (FS1). And by the time Tucker's players takes the field, there will be some clarity to if they even still have a remote chance of getting a postseason invite with a 5-7 record (more on that in a bit).
Bowl eligibility could have been reached with a win last week over Indiana. MSU's mojo seemed moving toward bowl eligibility last week against lowly Indiana, that by winning three of four games coming out of the losing skid, including an upset road victory over then-ranked Illinois with home wins over Wisconsin and Rutgers.
Everything reverted around halftime last Saturday against Indiana, a 17-point lead at home vanishing in a shocking collapse. The defense gave up a big-play touchdown. The offense threw an interception deep in IU territory. The special teams gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown. The kicker missed a go-ahead field goal at the end of regulation, then had another blocked in the first overtime.
The Hoosiers put it away in the second OT, 39-31, to devastate the Spartans. Making Saturday at Penn State essentially a must-win moment for them.
"The preparation doesn't change," running back Elijah Collins said after last week's loss. "I mean, knowing there's a bowl game on the line, yeah, that's OK. But at the same time, we sit here and we do it week by week. For me personally it'd be day by day. But you only focus on the team right in front of you."
Tucker's message to his team this week, to put the frustrations and anger of the Indiana loss behind them, included understanding the mountain they face in central Pennsylvania has been climbed before.
"In terms of needing to win a game to go to a bowl game, I've been a part of that," he said. "I've been a part of some losses (squandering) two-score leads halfway through the fourth quarter. Losing a home game, been through that. Against a rival school, that's happened. But also finding a way to get to a bowl game and ultimately playing well in that game. And winning the game, we can use that as a springboard for next season. Which can really help lay the foundation to have a great football team the next season.
"So yeah, I've actually been through it. … It's not my first rodeo. You have to decide what is the next right step to take and what is going to be helpful for the staff and for the team to move forward."
Some of his players were part of the 2019 team that needed to beat Maryland at home on the final day of the regular season to win its sixth. The Spartans clawed their way to a 19-16 home win in what became Dantonio's final home game, after which he gave them hats that said "Program Win" for getting bowl eligible for the 12th time in his 13 seasons.
MSU went on to beat Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish 7-6, and Dantonio retired suddenly and somewhat surprisingly a little more than a month later.
Tucker's late hiring in February 2020 and 2-5 debut during the pandemic season interrupted the standard Dantonio established, but the third-year coach guided the Spartans to an 11-2 season and victory in the Peach Bowl in 2021. It was MSU's first New Year's Six bowl since Dantonio's trifecta of Rose Bowl-Cotton Bowl-College Football Playoff semifinal between 2013-15.
Pull off the road victory at Penn State, and the Spartans' destination won't nearly be as significant. But it will be assured.
Lose again, and the chance to get an invitation could still be possible if not enough teams quality for the 82 available bowl game spots.
Entering Friday, there were 74 teams qualified, leaving eight openings going into the weekend.
MSU is one of 13 teams entering the weekend 5-6 and among 16 teams that could have a shot at six wins. Buffalo is 5-5 with two games remaining, with its snow-postponed game against Akron to be made up Dec. 2. Appalachian State is 6-5 with two wins over Football Championship Subdivision opponents, only one of which counts toward bowl eligibility. New Mexico State is 4-6 and plays Liberty on Saturday, but the Aggies previously postponed against San Jose State potentially still could be reschedule - NMSU would need to win both to get to six victories.
If the Spartans finish with a loss, they would be in a pool of 5-7 on-call teams in case any of the remaining eight bowl spots cannot be filled - Rutgers got in with five wins last season this way after Texas A&M pulled out of the Gator Bowl with COVID issues.
That pecking order goes by Academic Progress Report standings from 2021. MSU ranks behind Rice tied for second on that list of remaining five-win teams with Auburn and Missouri. However, the Spartans would be last in that three-team group because the tiebreaker is the previous year's APR.
There are 16 teams sitting at 4-7 on the season, but only two requiring a victory this weekend to get to five wins - Iowa State and UNLV - had higher APR scores in 2021 than MSU.
Trying to backdoor their way into a bowl game never was how the Spartans envisioned this season playing out, but could be their reality if they can't summon up one more surprise Saturday.
"We gotta go out and do our jobs every single play," linebacker Cal Haladay said. "And that's all we're focused on, 6 seconds a play. Just make sure you're doing your job every single snap, every single play."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's one-game season: Beat Penn State, get bowl eligible