TAMPA - Even Kirk Cousins wasn't sure Michigan State could stage a comeback in the Outback Bowl and make history.
"Down 16-0 at halftime, I had my doubts," Cousins said.
So did an entire state of Spartan fans and Spartan haters, alike. And a nation of Big Ten critics. And a Dixieland of premature celebrators.
Those of us close to the program have seen the new brand of Michigan State football win at Iowa and Ohio State for the first time since 1980-something, and post the longest home winning streak since the 1950s, and beat Michigan four straight times, and rise to become the best or second-best team in the Big Ten over the last 24 months, give or take a few BCS points and an acting job by a punter.
But we hadn't seen the Spartans win a bowl game under Mark Dantonio. Hadn't seen them win a bowl game since 2001. And Michigan State's most recent body of work in a bowl game was a 49-7 loss to Alabama 366 days ago.
Now they were down 16-0 to a fast, dominant Georgia defense, on southern soil. A loss seemed inevitable. Another embarrassing blowout seemed probable. The bandwagon was being evacuated. There would be no new flavor to this New Year.
Spartan followers would have to be satisfied with being the best in the state and merely among the very best in its Big Ten neighborhood, but resigned to the somber reality of remaining several laps behind one of the best of the SEC - and thereby not a serious player on the national scene.
But this is apparently a different brand of Spartan football, a different era in which Michigan State has suddenly become the flag bearer of the Big Ten, and an era in which Michigan State has become a can-do program, a championship program. Dantonio has been saying such things for a long time, now. It's time the rest of us started listening.
Thirty football minutes and three overtimes later, a 33-30 victory over the SEC East Division champion suddenly lends more credibility to Michigan State's Legends Division championship, and MSU's 2010 Big Ten title, and even the fact that MSU played for the Big Ten title on the final day of the 2008 season.
MSU has been bumping around with the best of the SEC for two of the past three years - mostly as a pretender. But now the tenor has changed. Beating the SEC East champion means Michigan State has closed the gap on the nation.
I'm not insinuating that Michigan State is ready to start serious talk about National Championship contention. But that's what they talk about at places like Georgia. And Michigan State just beat Georgia - with MSU emerging as the more dominant defense on the field. With MSU starting only one senior on that defensive 11.
Still, Cousins - he of heaping faith, and the poster boy of unlikely rises - wasn't sure at halftime.
"I knew how good their defense was and we were having a hard time finding openings," Cousins said. "And I thought, 'Boy, I don't know if we can score 16 points to get back in this game.'"
He Built Them Back Up
There were no angry words at halftime. Rather than tearing them down, Dantonio built them up.
"I just talked about, 'You've got to believe in yourself,'" Dantonio said, "and somebody's got to step forward and we've got to start that ball rolling.
"We were just two plays away from it being down 2-0 at halftime."
That sufficed as a pep talk: "We're two plays away from only being down 2-0."
That's how dire things seemed.
"It's halftime and we're going off the field and you hear them chanting, 'SEC! SEC!' like it's about to be a blowout," Robinson said. "We went in and we said, 'This game is not over. We have been in positions like this and we GOTTA win.
"I said, 'This is a must-win game and we HAVE to win this game.'"
Cousins, more than anyone, knew how steep a climb this comeback would be. Georgia's secondary moved faster and closed quicker than any set of defensive backs Cousins and his receivers had seen this season. Georgia's huge defensive interior and quick outside linebackers were stuffing the run game and pressuring the quarterback.
"They were the best defense we have played all year," Cousins said.
But Michigan State proved to be as good as any defense Georgia has faced all year. That's quite a statement, considering Georgia most recent game was against No. 1-ranked LSU, which boasts the top-rated defense in the country.
Michigan State's defense - easily the best in the Big Ten - stood jawbone-to-jawbone with the Bulldogs through most of the first half, and the early stages of the second half. Georgia had just as much trouble moving against MSU as it did against LSU.
The Bulldogs scored a defensive safety, scored on a punt return, and popped off an 80-yard TD on a deep pass. They earned that deep TD, turning safety Trenton Robinson inside out with a nod to the flag and a quick double move to the post. But Georgia would have very few sustained offensive surges the rest of the day.
Georgia would produce only 11 points and 133 yards of offense in the second half.
The Spartans smartly stuck to a game plan of defense and field position, while working patiently to find adjustments on offense.
The Spartans didn't try any fake field goals or fake punts, didn't attempt any overzealous gambles on fourth down. They were smartly frugal in deciding WHEN to attempt to throw beyond the chains on third down, and when not to. They punted, gave Georgia a long field, stuffed the Bulldog running attack and dared Georgia to go to the air with the lead. This opened Georgia up to mistakes.
"Defensively, we were pretty confident going into the second half," said sophomore linebacker Max Bullough. "We gave up seven points on kind of a fluke play. Coach Narduzzi said we had to step up and make a play, make an interception, force a fumble or something."
"Even when the score got kind of out of control, we knew if we kept playing defense something good would come out of it," said sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen. "That's how it's been all year. We stayed confident and gave non-stop effort and it paid off."
"We were talking like somebody has to come up with a big play to get the momentum going," Robinson said, "and to get our offense rolling and everything. Darqueze came up with that big play."
Darqueze Dennard intercepted an Aaron Murray pass on Georgia's first possession of the second half, making a diving grab. "It looked like Aaron threw it one way and the receiver went the other way," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
Dennard was there to capitalize, and provide a spark.
Three plays later, Cousins zipped an out route to B.J. Cunningham on third-and-10, marking the first productive offensive play in more than an hour - as Georgia had forced five straight three-and-outs prior to that. Georgia can do that to you. In the SEC title game, the Bulldogs held LSU without a first down for the entire first half, yet led only 10-0 at the break because the Bulldogs had dropped a pair of TD passes.
On this day, Georgia caught its one deep ball opportunity, forcing MSU to come back from a greater deficit.
MSU proved every bit as capable as LSU, outscoring the Bulldogs 27-11 in the final 30 minutes of regulation.
Two plays after Cunningham's catch, MSU went with a quick no-huddle play, with an uncommon, tight, bunched formation, a late shift, then a quick-hitting pass to tight end Brian Linthicum over the middle for a gain of 16.
The new formation and the shift confused the Georgia defense momentarily. That's the type of edge MSU needed to create. Adjustments were under way. And Linthicum would be a central figure.
Inside The Game: MSU's Adjustments
With MSU needing to go to the air, yet having trouble in pass protection, the Spartans went to quick-releasing pass plays, utilizing short routes to the tight end and even the fullback. MSU went with three-step drops as part of the quick game, and a few more sprint out passes.
"They weren't going to get sacked," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of MSU's adjustment. "They were going to get rid of the ball."
"Georgia did a great job of defending our passes," Dantonio said. "What we had to do was get loose."
After getting Linthicum loose on the trick shift play, MSU kept momentum going with a 6-yard, pile-moving gain of Le'Veon Bell on a shot gun draw. Then came an 8-yard TD run by Bell a zone lead to the right, with Linthicum finishing a point-of-attack block on the d-end and then getting out for a piece of the play-side inside linebacker. Meanwhile, Keith Nichol locked up the safety, and right guard Chris McDonald got a hat on the other inside linebacker.
Fullback Todd Anderson caved the knee of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones with a devastating cut block. Jones was helped off the field, and later returned to the game. But Jones, one of the most freakishly talented defensive players MSU has faced all year, was short a few RPMs the rest of the day.
MSU was back in its element. Defense. Blocking. Tackling. Field position. Believing.
"When we got the first touchdown, it started to change right there," Dantonio said. "We started believing."
MSU went for 2, and Cousins found Linthicum on a bunch/scatter play, which again fooled the Bulldog defense and left the TE all alone.
"We had to get that big ball of momentum, and just push it a little bit and get it rolling," Dantonio said. "And once we got it rolling, regardless of what happened, they couldn't get it back. We kept it."
Georgia's next possession ended with a three-and-out. Its next possession ended with another Dennard interception, which he returned for a touchdown. D-end Marcus Rush anticipated the throw, and got a hand on it, deflecting it to Dennard.
Denzel Drone and Chris Norman thwarted Georgia's next drive with tackles for losses. MSU racked up 17 TFLs on the day, looking more like Alabama of last year than the stereotypical Big Ten outfit. "I didn't see a big speed difference," Richt said. "You can't play good defense unless you are fast."
MSU was both fast and good, and punishing on defense on this day.
But the Spartans still needed to find an offensive component or two to complement the use of the tight end. Trailing 14-12, with 11:25 left in the game, the Spartans had thrown short of first-down yardage on third-down stoppages four times.
Fans and media are often quick to criticize a QB and a play-caller for drawing up anything short of the sticks on third down.
But on third-and-medium, or worse, against Georgia - you throw downfield at your own risk.
On third-and-10, early in the fourth quarter, Cousins decided to throw a bit farther downfield. He saw the cornerback who was assigned to Cunningham creep inside prior to the snap, indicating that he was going to blitz.
Cousins audibled to his blockers and Cunningham, changing the pass protection scheme. Cousins welcomed the blitz, because he knew it would leave Cunningham open momentarily.
He planned to throw an out route to Cunningham.
But the blitz would come so quickly that Cousins would have to throw to a spot, almost blindly, BEFORE Cunningham made his out cut.
You want to throw for the sticks? He threw for the sticks. But Cunningham's cut didn't exactly match Cousins' telepathic plan, and the Georgia safety closed smart and fast for the interception.
It was Cousins' first interception of the day. If he had thrown beyond the sticks earlier in the game, he would have thrown more picks. You have to choose your spots against this fast Georgia defense which ranks No. 3 in then nation in third-down defense, sporting a free safety who ranks No. 3 in the country in interceptions with 7.
Georgia had made an adjustment to MSU's adjustment.
"With them throwing quick, then you have to decide what you're going to do when you play your coverage," Grantham said. "You try to disguise things and try to get the guy to throw picks. Because of the way they were throwing the ball so quick, we went to more coverage/pressure type of stuff to try to force them to throw it into the coverage."
The Hidden Hero
That interception would have been returned for a TD and a commanding 23-14 lead IF Larry Caper had not chased it down and made a spirited tackle at the MSU 12-yard line.
MSU kept Georgia out of the end zone - thanks to another Norman TFL and heavy hit on first down - to force a field goal, limit Georgia's lead 19-14 and keep hope alive.
On MSU's next offensive play, it was time to get loose again. The Spartans designed a throwback screen to Linthicum for 50 yards.
"Linthicum was involved in two sort of trick plays that he made plays on," Dantonio said. "And a big two-point throw to him when he was not the primary receiver. Kirk came off the primary and went to him. He did a great job."
It was another one of those plays which limited MSU's exposure to a sack and Georgia's pass rush. Linthicum finished with seven catches for 115 yards. Both were career highs.
"Brian made plays, did a great job," Cousins said. "Their defense suffocated us for much of the first half. It was a challenge for us to move the football. There weren't many holes out there, and guys like Brian Linthicum, Keith Nichol, Keshawn, B.J., Le'Veon did a good job when they could."
Finding The Third Man
Three plays after the screen, MSU had to throw from the pocket, down the field, on third-and-goal from the 7-yard line. Cousins found Nichol on a post in the back of the end zone for a TD and a 20-19 lead.
On that play, Georgia kept two safeties deep, with man-to-man underneath. The right safety provided bracket double-coverage on Cunningham's in route on his side of the field. The other safety provided bracket double-coverage on Keshawn Martin on the other side of the field.
Georgia was in a nickel defense and put its best cover corner - No. 2, the MVP of the game, Brandon Boykin ON THE TIGHT END, LINTHICUM in the slot area.
This left Nichol in one-on-one coverage with the nickel back on the outside. The nickel back, Branden Smith - Georgia's first DB off the bench - played soft coverage, gave Nichol a free release off the line of scrimmage.
Nichol ran one of the best routes of his career. He came off the line at good speed, planted and made a hard, quick cut to the post with very good speed. No wasted steps. Nothing rounded. Sharp to the post.
Cousins had deciphered all of the above information in an instant, and received good pass protection against a four-man rush. Cousins zipped it on time and high, to a point where he knew the athletic Nichol could go up and make the grab.
Michigan State led 20-19, and green nation smelled revolution.
Spicing The Script
By now, you have probably memorized the rest of what happened. Georgia answered with its one scoring drive of the second half - aided by deep pass over Robinson in cover-two zone for 53 yards, and then a 13-yard TD to Boykin against a middle blitz on third-and-12.
That just spiced the script for another comeback.
But not before Cousins questioned the football gods once again. On third-and-two, his little pass to Linthicum over the middle was batted by a linebacker and intercepted by 350-pound nose guard John Jenkins. Linthicum had made two catches earlier in the drive, including one on a flanker pass. But Georgia had tightened the vices on him.
"I went to the right spot," Cousins said. "I couldn't put too much touch on it because the safety was screaming down and the linebacker did a great job tipping it. Credit the linebacker. Sometimes players just make plays.
"They have a phenomenal defense. They don't have many weaknesses. You saw on the one interception how athletic the linebacker was to make a play on it. The combination of size and speed that they have is very impressive.
"We knew going into the game that they had players that were going to make great plays and we had to respond."
But Cousins didn't know if he would ever see the ball again. The interception happened with 3:56 remaining. Georgia was two first downs away from securing victory. But they would get only one.
"There were those moments when you said, 'It just can't end with a loss. We are not going to allow it to end with a loss,'" Cousins said. "There were a couple of times when we were inches from that happening."
A Precious :13
MSU burned two time outs while stopping Georgia, late in the fourth quarter. Then Jerel Worthy jumped off-side on third-and-eight with 3:46 remaining.
Worthy had a very good day, capping a very good year and likely a very good career, as he is expected to enter the NFL Draft. But he held his head in disgust after this off-side penalty. Instead of third-and-eight, it became third-and-3.
MSU was flagged for pass interference on the next play while a Georgia receiver was ruled to have caught a pass. MSU coaches had every reason to pout and kick the dirt and feel sorry for themselves and be angry at Worthy.
But Dantonio smartly challenged the officials' call.
For an instant, many of us in the press box - and likely millions of fans around the country - were wondering why Dantonio would challenge this play. Georgia had the first down, by pass interference. Why review that?
You know the end by now, but it should be remembered as one of the smartest, cool-minded moves of Dantonio's career and MSU bowl history. The officials ruled the play a catch. And with it, extra time ran off the clock.
Dantonio called for the play to be reviewed, and for the officials to check to see if the receiver had actually made the catch or if it was an incompletion. He got his wish, the call was reversed. It was an incompletion, which means the clock should have stopped. Due to the reversal, :13 seconds were placed back on the clock.
Without those :13 seconds, how much more frantic would MSU's two-minute drill have been at the end of the game? How would that have affected play calling, and Cousins' efficiency, and the hands of the receivers?
A little while later, MSU scored the tying touchdown which forced overtime with precisely :14 seconds remaining.
So much happened from that point forward during the three overtimes that we brilliant minds in the media FORGOT to ask Dantonio about his wise conservation of seconds which took place way back with 3:43 left in regulation.
Mainly, we asked him about his emotions, what this game meant to the players, the seniors, the program, the planet.
"I think we have one of the top programs in the Big Ten right now, if not the country," Dantonio said. "I feel like every time we go out we can win.
"I think it just points towards us becoming an elite program in this league. There's not a football team that we cannot play with and not win against. We've done that. We've beaten every football team in the Big Ten conference within the last four years."
Someone made the point that the seniors' last victory was their final "first" - as in the first bowl win of the Dantonio era, which seems to promise many more to come.
"Now they completed a circle, they finished," Dantonio said. "This is the last time they played and it's the first time they have won a bowl game. Once again you've done something that hasn't been done here in my time as head coach and hasn't been done in a while as a program.
"The standard has been set by by our seniors. We're going to have to continue to work and grow as a program with recruits and different things. But everything is there.
"Two 11-win seasons, there's not too many football teams in the country that are saying that right now. I would think that this win would hopefully help solidify a Top 10 ranking in this year's final polls.
"Big win against a great football team, against an SEC team, against a team that won their division and was 10-2 in the regular season."
A month ago, Robinson was so disturbed by the loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and the fact that he would never play in the Rose Bowl that he said he felt his career was a failure. I'm not sure I've ever heard stronger words of despair in a post-game press conference.
Last night, Robinson was back up where he belongs.
"I feel like a champion," he said. "I feel so good and I know our senior class feels good. We can always say we were winners, with two 11-win seasons and I feel like a champion.
"We have worked so hard to get to this point. We slipped up last month in the Big Ten Championship Game, but I'm not even thinking about that anymore. This was our Rose Bowl. This was the biggest game for us and we bounced back and did what we had to do to get this win.
"This one was special. It was something special because it was my last one. I will never get to do that again with my Spartan dawgs. It was just great. It was the best feeling I've had in a long time."
"I've been part of a program that was down, just trying to get into a bowl game, and now I'm leaving with two straight 11-win seasons and finishing in the Top 10 in the country hopefully, it shows what we've done over the last five years," Cousins said. "Georgia, who is as good a team as there is in the country, the fact that we stood toe-to-toe with them and battled all game shows how far our program has come and where we're going.
"This was the right way to go out. I'm thankful for the opportunity I was given at Michigan State, and the for the way we as a senior class have been able to build this program up from somewhat irrelevance to hopefully a Top 10 ranking. We have established this program among the nation's elite and we are very proud of that.
"For our senior class and all the things we accomplished, to lose our last two games just wasn't acceptable. We needed this one badly."
Cousins' legacy is secure. He is one of the best winners in MSU history, the leading passer in MSU history and one of the greatest leaders in MSU history.
He hugged everyone. He was the last to leave the field at Raymond James Stadium. He did a
victory lap along wall of the western sideline, slapping hands with Spartan fans who came to the rail to greet him and thank him.
"I was just trying to soak it all in," he said. "This is the last time. I won't be able to put on this jersey again after today."
We've seen Dantonio celebrate big victories. However, even after "Little Giants" and "Rocket", and the victories over Michigan, there was never a sense of finality in those celebrations. There was always more work to be done the following morning, for the next game. More corrections to be made, more anxiety to come.
But this time, it was different. His smile was bigger, the celebration had more spark. He was even a little silly. The work is all done for the 2011 season. He can now punch the time card on 2011. His fifth season ended in victory, in game 14, with the seniors going out as winners, and a trophy headed back to Skandalaris. Goal, goal, goal, goal.
This celebration included a glorious, much-deserved exhale.
"I saw Coach D in the locker room and I think he might have had tears in his eyes, I don't know," Bullough said. "Maybe he was just screaming too much. To see how happy he was to get a bowl win, and to do that for him and do that for these senors, and everyone is all smiles, talking about how much fun it was, it was just incredible."