EVANSTON, Ill. - There have been little plays, giant plays, and times when winner has taken all during Michigan State's still-blossoming, increasingly-memorable 2010 season. But not once during this fairy tale has a player stepped forward with a truly fantastic performance the caliber of the one Kirk Cousins put forth Saturday at rainy, windy Ryan Field.
Cousins was good most of the day, and great at the end. On the go-ahead touchdown drive of MSU's 35-27 victory over Northwestern, Cousins and the Spartan offense headed into a strong wind with 7:18 to play, down by six. Coaches decided that Cousins' arm, and not the legs of a once-dominant running game, was the best mode of transportation.
Behind inconsistent pass protection, Cousins completed seven passes to five different receivers for 98 yards on the go-ahead drive, moving the ball from MSU's 12-yard-line. He was sacked twice on the drive, stayed calm, delivered for 18 to Keith Nichol on second-and-20, 14 again to Nichol on third-and-15, and 8 to Charlie Gantt on fourth-and one, and finally to B.J. Cunningham, for a 9-yard TD pass.
Nichol's receptions were terrific. Gantt's catch was clutch. And Cunningham's will be replayed for years to come. But the trigger man, Cousins, made it happen in a way that we had not seen from a Spartan quarterback during this renaissance period of Spartan football under Mark Dantonio. Not until now.
Cousins has been good for more than a year. On Saturday, he took his game to another level when the Spartans absolutely needed it.
"Kirk Cousins is an unbelievable leader," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "Players follow him."
Cousins did it in the locker room at halftime, on the sideline prior to the game-winning drive, and on the field at the end.
"Sometimes you have to be on the sideline with him to get a feel for that, but his confidence wasn't shaken," said offensive coordinator Don Treadwell. "He kept believing. Cousins laser-beamed some passes in there."
Cousins completed 29-of-43 passes for 331 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"You've got to have a guy at the helm that has been in it," Treadwell said of Cousins. "That showed itself today. Great leaders and great quarterbacks are able to do it under those circumstances and we are not surprised by it.
"We are so proud of the man behind center, Kirk Cousins, and what he did. He hung in there. He got a few hits on him and he didn't let it shake him, obviously."
Into a lake-effect wind, with the pressure of being the main care-taker of an unbeaten record and the highest BCS ranking in school history, Cousins leaned on his teammates and went to work.
"Kirk was like, 'You know what we've got to do. We've got to get it and score, take it in,' and that's what we did," Cunningham said.
The drive began with an 18-yard out route to Dell. Dell had a team-high nine catches on the day for 109 yards.
Time wasn't an issue on the drive. But Michigan State attacked out of the shotgun, and chose to run the ball only once in 11 play calls.
The lone ground call was a draw play out of a spread formation on third-and-two. Edwin Baker picked up five on that play, behind blocks from Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald, moving the ball to the Michigan State 43.
Prior to the go-ahead drive, Michigan State had rushed for only 85 yards. Northwestern stuffed a Spartan ground attack which began the season by rushing for 200 or more yards in five of their first six games.
Northwestern stopped MSU on two third-and-short runs in the first half, paving the way to a 17-0 Wildcat lead.
"Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern's defensive coordinator, does an outstanding job recognizing things and his guys came to play," Dantonio said. "Emotion is a very, very strong thing and I think they had the emotion in the first half."
MSU trailed 17-7 at halftime. Cousins spoke up.
"We are a second half team, guys," Cousins told them in the locker room. "I don't want to be down, here, trailing at halftime, but the fact of the matter is we tend to play well in the second half and come back if we're down.'"
The Spartans tried zone runs in the first quarter-and-a-half, and tried power gap runs later, but decided that Cousins was the answer.
"When you look at the big picture, we needed to do what was done, and that's be able to throw the football," Treadwell said. "There were some things that they (Northwestern) did very well. They came out and played us very tough. We weren't quite on track on a couple of things there in the run game early. Obviously we needed to throw the football."
After the completion to Dell, MSU had first-and-10 at its own 30 with more than six minutes to play. But MSU didn't even threaten the defense with the Spartans' best run looks. MSU operated out of the shotgun, with three receivers.
The decision to abandon the run didn't look good when Cousins was sacked on the second play of the go-ahead drive. A Northwestern blitz sent linebacker Bryce McNaul past MSU left guard Joel Foreman.
But Cousins came back, on second-and-20, with an 18-yard dart to Nichol on a deep in cut.
"Everybody kind of hunkered down, took a deep breath and made a play, whether it was Kirk, the o-line, the backs, the receivers, blocking," Nichol said. "That drive was huge."
After Baker's 5-yard gain on the draw play, Cousins went back to work with an 18-yarder to Cunningham on a deep out.
Then, on first-and-10 at the Northwestern 39, with more than four minutes to play, Michigan State stayed with the air game, and again found trouble. Cousins rolled right, felt heat and threw it away.
Then on second down, Cousins took a five-step drop and looked deep. Northwestern defensive end Vince Browne fought past Gantt, and got a piece of Cousins' arm for a sack and a fumble. Foreman recovered.
MSU, which had climbed out of holes all day, including 17-0 and 24-14 deficits, faced third-and-15.
"Everybody just had that mentality: This is it. If we are going to make a play, it needs to be made now," Nichol said. "We were at third-and-15, and we were like, if we don't make a play now, the percentages are extremely low."
Out of an empty formation, Cousins and Nichol - a former quarterback - saw the same opening in Northwestern's coverage. Nichol ran a quick, skinny post. The ball was out of Cousins' hand quickly. Nichol was ready.
"I had a pretty good idea the ball was going to be coming to me, so I just tried to make a good move on the DB and I knew when I got my head around the ball was going to be thrown and it was going to be right there," Nichol said. "Kirk put it in a good spot where only I could go get it."
Nichol is being modest. Nichol showed every inch of his team-best vertical jump on that play, along with the physicality of his 6-foot-2, 222-pound frame, and every ounce of competitiveness that Cousins knew he had. These were the biggest plays of Nichol's career.
"Keith caught a ball that was very high early in that drive; he went up and got it," Cousins said. "He had a couple of very important catches on that drive that were not easy. There were some big, big plays by our receivers."
"Kirk was just threading the ball to us, putting it on the money," Cunningham said. "Mark was making plays, I was making plays, Baker, Keith. The last drive, we just came out and knew what we had to do, make plays for our quarterback, and we got it done."
Nichol's 14-yard snag set up fourth-and-one. Again, Treadwell opted to go to the air rather than pound the ground. He didn't even call for a play action fake. MSU confidently operated out of the shot gun, and put four receivers to the left side.
"That's a quads formation," Cousins said. "It's a little bit unorthodox. It's been working for us."
Last week against Illinois, Treadwell dialed up the quads formation two times, both on third-and-mediums. Each time, Cousins found Cunningham for important, chain-moving plays.
Michigan State used the quads formation only twice against Northwestern, and again, moved the chains each time. On the first occasion, Cousins rolled out and threw to Nichol for a gain of 11 on third-and-7 late in the third quarter. That play fueled MSU's third TD drive, which cut the lead to 24-21 with 13:12 to play.
On fourth-and-one at the 30 in the final minutes, Cousins had Cunningham, Gantt, Nichol and Dell to choose from, on the left half of the field.
"We do a sprint out protection and try to read it across the field and he (Gantt) was the guy who was open and made a great catch to get the first down," Cousins said.
It was Gantt's second-biggest catch of the season.
"I was right next to Charlie," Cunningham said. "I was open too. He could have thrown it to either of us. It was just a short little sit route. Just go out there and sit down."
It was a difficult pattern to cover.
"The schemes Coach Tread puts us in to prepare for that team, give credit to him," Cunningham said. "He was calling great plays. I guess he saw something in that defense and saw some holes and we just executed."
Treadwell knew Cousins could handle the wind.
"There definitely was wind," Cousins said.
Ask punter Aaron Bates.
"After my pass into the breeze, I think you could see a little difference in arm strength (between me and Kirk)," Bates said with a laugh, in reference to his successful fake punt earlier in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't throw the ball a whole lot to where it really hung up in there in the air," Cousins said. "But you could see in the kicking game how much the wind affected it.
"Once I got out there, once you make the read and try to throw the pass, you're just trying to fire it in there. And I think that's where arm strength makes a big difference for a quarterback, to be able to cut the wind with the ball. Your arm strength, makes a big difference in a game like this."
â€¨Now in a rhythm, Treadwell called for a new-look swing pass to Baker in the left flat. Cousins sold action to the right, then whirled back to the left, to get the ball to Baker in space. Baker made two Wildcats miss and scampered down to the 9-yard line. The season felt special again.
On the next snap, Cousins connected with Cunningham in the back of the end zone on a short nod/post route. But Michigan State couldn't wrap up this comeback with a simple, safe, secure, two-handed catch. Northwestern safety Brian Peters got a piece of the pass as Cunningham tried to nab it out of the Midwestern sky.
"I thought B.J. was going to get it the first time, the way he went up on top of that guy, but the DB actually made a great play, tipping it up in the air," Nichol said.
Then Cunningham tipped it away from Peters, and back toward himself.
"His concentration all the way to the ground was amazing," Nichol said. "I was right next to him, so I saw everything. He was tipping it and I was trying to get to him in case it got tipped to me. For a second it looked like it was going to roll right to me, but B.J. kept on it."
"As I'm falling back to the ground," Cunningham said, "I had to grab it with my left hand, and roll over on my back and make sure the refs saw that I had possession of it."
The throng of more than 15,000 visiting Michigan State fans - possibly closer to 20,000 - erupted.
"The feeling at that moment, I can't explain it," Nichol said.
"It was a big adrenalin rush when it happened, to make a play for my quarterback and everyone else," Cunningham said. "It was like grabbing a rebound, man, and going and getting the ball and finishing with a dunk. I hope Coach Izzo saw that. Izzo, that's for you."
Don't blame Cousins if he is starting to feel some commonality with his championship-winning Spartan basketball brethren.
"I think that great teams in special seasons find a way to win, and today we found a way," Cousins said. "I don't really know how. I'll have to go back and watch the film to figure that out. I just know that we ended up with more points on the scoreboard when it said zero."
Thanks largely to a new hero.
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