Recap: Wild Wings, Wild Win

Christian Petersen

We write these previews for a reason.

From the TCU preview:

On the other side, TCU bloggers tell us the Frogs are having trouble catching punts.

expect a trick play or two from MSU (as usual in bowl games).

Because MSU is playing in this game, it will be close and probably come down to the final minutes. How about Dan Conroy finishing his career strong with a game-winning field goal?

Of course, I can't point out what I was right about without pointing out where I was wrong.

With that, I apologize to those of you whom I told Connor Cook was not the answer. He was far from brilliant, and his numbers really weren't that great, but he was enough of a spark to lead MSU to a 17-16 win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Obviously this doesn't make him the starter for 2013, but there will be an open competition for the job in the spring, along with Tyler O'Connor and possibly Damion Terry (though I think it's very likely Terry redshirts).

You can't say MSU would have been better with Cook earlier in the season, though. There was much more on the line during the regular season, with opponents who know everything you do. It was a lot easier to turn to him in the final game rather than in the middle of a season. And again, Cook wasn't *that* good. Maxwell was just that bad — easily his worst performance of the season.

For what it's worth, I still give Maxwell the edge to win the job for 2013, but it will be interesting to watch.

Let's look back at my keys to the game:

Run the ball: From a team standpoint, MSU had a 123-87 total edge and they were equal at 2.9 yards per carry, but individually, there was a reason Le'Veon Bell was named offensive MVP of the game. Bell finished with 145 yards on 32 carries (4.5 ypc) with a touchdown.

Win first down: Against a defense that knew the run was coming, Bell didn't have a carry that resulted in a loss of yardage. Neither team was particularly good at this, and final yardage numbers (3.3 per play for MSU, 4.9 for TCU) showed that.

Turnovers: A 2-0 edge for MSU in this department, and it might have been the difference in the game. As mentioned above, a muffed punt inside the 5-yard line set up a go-ahead TD run by Bell in the fourth quarter. Isaiah Lewis also intercepted a pass inside the 10-yard line on a drive that could have resulted in valuable points for TCU.

Now, breaking down all sides of the ball.

Offense:

Thoughts on the quarterbacks and Bell are above.

In the first half of the game, you really wondered what MSU worked on over the bowl practices. MSU's first three plays: Run up the gut for three yards, pass to Bell for one yard, pass to Aaron Burbridge for a loss of one yard. Basically, what we've seen all season: Nothing downfield. They recorded 76 yards in the first half. That's unbelievably bad. We all pointed to the 16-0 halftime deficit against Georgia last year and joked that it couldn't happen with these guys. It did, but that's three straight bowl games without any points in the first half for MSU. That's a trend.

They said Connor Cook took a series in the first half because it was planned, and I believe them. MSU did that in 2008 against Georgia with Kirk Cousins. But Cook helping lead the team on its longest touchdown drive of the season (90) yards and then having the confidence of the coaches for the game-winning drive says something. Again, Cook's numbers weren't good (4-for-11, 47 yards, 1 TD) and the touchdown was all Burbridge, but he did show a lot more poise and confidence than Maxwell, who had happy feet from the very beginning. Bell led the team in passing yards until the final drive. That should say it all.

Never forget:

With either quarterback in the second half, they decided to ride Bell to the end, as they should have, but the fact they still couldn't come up with any viable way to move the ball in the air is very discouraging. The blame goes everywhere. I mentioned the quarterback problems, but the receivers never get open, the pass protection is very inconsistent and the playcalling leaves much to be desired. Assuming Bell leaves for the NFL, I'd love to see MSU spread out and air the ball out and use its speedy backs. Going run-first in the pro-style with this personnel is not going to work.

Defense:

Did you miss Johnny Adams in that first half?

Mitchell White was beat deep on one of TCU's first plays, but it was incomplete. Trae Waynes was beat deep on the final play of the first quarter and it led to a field goal. White was out of position on a 61-yard catch-and-run on a play in the third quarter as MSU fell behind 13-0.

But credit to Waynes, who really stepped up in the second half, as the whole defense did. TCU had less than 90 yards in the second half and MSU finally got that stop at the end of the game to secure a win. Will Gholston was terrific for his second straight bowl (Nine tackles, one sack, one pass breakup) and was disrupting a lot. If he leaves for the NFL (which I think he shouldn't if he wants to go higher), he'd be replaced by Shilique Calhoun, who recorded two tackles for loss (one sack) and had a QB hurry.

Some other things I noticed when watching the replay: Denzel Drone was very disruptive when put in the three down-linemen formation. Switching to No. 42 made me forget who he was. Kyler Elsworth continues to just make plays whenever he's in there. I didn't notice Darqueze Dennard much at all, which means he shut down his guys. Kurtis Drummond had a lame penalty early in the game, but was solid with six tackles and a pass breakup. MSU averaged 1.23 sacks per game in the regular season, but had four against TCU.

Special teams:

If you're not on the Mike Sadler bandwagon, get on board! Sadler proved why he should have been named the Big Ten's top punter with a career-high 11 boots, averaging 43.7 yards with a long of 55 and three inside the 20, including one that was muffed. He also didn't get suspended for the game. Yes, I'm still bitter.

On the other side, you had to feel good for Dan Conroy, nailing a 47-yarder with everything on the line, including his legacy. We already went over the numbers, but it was great to see him come through in the clutch for the second straight bowl and end his career with a winner that gives him the single-season record at MSU (23).

Conclusions:

How will you remember this season? This was the topic of my Freep column. The defense? The offense? The failed expectations?

It's probably a mix of all of that, but don't forget the fight this team showed, too. Every week, we asked when the locker room would divide between offense and defense, but it never did. MSU couldn't win the close game? They went 4-5 in games decided by four points or less. It wasn't a narrative, it was a team that just wasn't as good as we hoped.

They shouldn't have lost to Iowa, but they shouldn't have beaten Wisconsin. They were screwed by the refs against Nebraska, but that TCU fumble might have been the difference in the bowl game. Along with that, opponents went 24-for-25 on field goals. That's unreal. It was No. 2 in opponent percentage, behind Hawaii, whose opponents went 4-for-4.

I said it before, but this season was another example of how far this program has come. Would a JLS team have kept its composure throughout the entire season? The foundation Mark Dantonio built has become so strong, such a difference between offense and defense coupled with failed expectations couldn't break it.

There are a lot of questions heading into the offseason, and they'll be answered another day. But for now, there's a reason to celebrate the 2012 Spartans.

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