EAST LANSING - The names Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham will be linked in the Spartan record books and memories of Michigan State fans for years. On Sunday night, they continued to feel the sting of Saturday night's loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, and seem to be moving on at different rates.
An upbeat Cunningham and still-despondent Cousins met with media after Sunday's annual team banquet, following the announcement that Michigan State would face SEC East Division champion Georgia in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2.
"Still hurting," Cousins said when asked how he was coping with the day after. "I'd be lying to you if I said I am moving forward and feeling great."
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An unshaven Cousins spoke a bit more slowly than usual, with somber undertones.
"To come that close two years in a row, it's almost a tease," he said. "We just need to keep moving forward, stay positive. We have some time to get back on our feet. We'll be okay. This program is in great hands. We need to remember how good we are and how good we have been.
"It was the toughest loss I've ever had in athletics."
Cunningham spoke quickly, with a genuine smile.
"That type of game, you're never going to forget," Cunningham said of the loss in the Big Ten Championship Game. "Our team played hard, and I feel like it was a fun game to watch and play in. I wish it would have turned out the other way, but we're getting over it now, we have a bowl game to play in so that's what we're looking forward to now."
Michigan State is ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll but did not crack the Top 14 in the BCS rankings, and therefore was ineligible for a BCS bowl game. Meanwhile, Michigan - a team that finished beneath the Spartans in the Big Ten standings and a team against which MSU holds a head-to-head victory - did crack the Top 14 and was awarded a bid to the BCS Sugar Bowl.
"That's the tick of the trade," Cunningham said with a smile when asked about the reality of seeing the Spartans' rival earn a higher-ranking bowl bid. "That's how the BCS works. You have to take the good with the bad, that's what we're trying to do here and keep going.
"That's the system. It isn't fair, life isn't fair, but we're going to a Jan. 2 bowl game against a great team and we're going to make the best of the opportunity and live in the moment."
"It's funny that we were sitting here today disappointed that we are ranked 12th or 13th in the country and disappointed that we are playing in a New Years Day type bowl game on ABC," Cousins said. "It's funny to think back three years ago that we would be saying that.
"The standard has been set at a higher level and I think that's a good measurement of our senior class as we leave. This program has been built to last now and it's going to be built for sustained success."
Dealing with a defeat - only MSU's fifth in the last 26 games, and one which cost the Spartans a Rose Bowl bid - will take time for Cousins.
"It's hard to say anything that is really going to make anyone feel that much better," Cousins said. "(At the banquet), we just looked back and took stock of all that was accomplished, which has been a great deal. I'm thankful we have one game left to enjoy this team and a final chance to play with these teammates."
Cunningham was a surprise winner of the Governor's Award, the team MVP, as voted on by teammates.
"That felt great," Cunningham said. "It was a surprise. That shows how my teammates feel about me. I feel respected and I respect them for that.
"I feel like we worked for this, I worked hard, Kirk worked hard. He's my MVP in my eyes. And our wide outs, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, everybody played their heart out this season and I'm just proud of everybody."
Cunningham is Michigan State's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, but he hasn't participated in a bowl game since his freshman year. Cunningham missed last year's Capital One Bowl against Alabama due a knee injury, and missed the 2009 Valero Alamo Bowl due to suspension after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault.
"The last bowl game I played in was against Georgia (the 2008 Capital One Bowl)," Cunningham said. "That's going to be a fun experience in itself to get down to Tampa, play a good team from the SEC and try to come out with a win. Our seniors have never won a bowl game. This fifth year, we have to get there and win one."
Other award winners on Sunday night included:
Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior offense): Cousins, Cunningham.
Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior on defense): Trenton Robinson.
President's Award (perseverance): Kevin Pickelman, Keith Nichol.
Danzinger Award (outstanding Detroit-area player): Keshawn Martin, Will Gholston.
Up Front Award (outstanding offensive lineman): Joel Foreman.
Outstanding Underclass Back Award: Le'Veon Bell, Isaiah Lewis.
Outstanding Underclass Lineman Award: Chris McDonald, Jerel Worthy.
MSU Players Association Community Service & Outreach Award: Brian Linthicum.
Clarence Underwood Sportsmanship Award: Cousins, Robinson.
Tommy Love Award (most improved): Todd Anderson, Denicos Allen.
Jim Adams Award (unsung hero): Garrett Celek, Chris Norman.
Biggie Munn Award (most inspirational): Arthur Ray Jr.
Potsy Ross Award (top scholar athletes): Mike Sadler (4.0 applied engineering science), Max Bullough (3.93 finance), Andrew Maxwell (3.76 supply chain management), Nate Klatt (3.78 accounting).
Iron Man Award (strength & conditioning): Pickelman.
Doug Weaver Oil Can (team humorist): Chris D. Rucker.