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Michigan State 35, Purdue 31 - Don't Call It a Comeback

Many of us thought the past bye week would rejuvenate the Spartans and MSU's opening drive, a nine play, 72-yard trek culminating in a gorgeous 24-yard TD reception by Mark Dell, did nothing to dissuade that notion.  Nearly halfway through the third quarter however, Michigan State found itself down 28-13 due to several defensive breakdowns, a massive brain fart from Kirk Cousins, and the first missed extra point from Dan Conroy on the season.  Yet somehow, in stark contrast to previous seasons,  I kept believing MSU would find a way to win.   Sure enough, aided and abetted by Rob Henry and the Purdue special teams unit, MSU scored 22 points in the 4th quarter to eke out a 35-31 victory, and stand to clam their first share of a Big Ten title in two decades.

First, let's review the gaffes that allowed Purdue to build such a lead:
  • Trenton Robinson overpursues Keith Carlos, allowing Carlos to run past him.  This wouldn't be such a big deal  if Robinson wasn't the free safety, but alas, and Carlos runs 80 yards for a touchdown.
  • On the following series on a third and four, Kirk Cousins throws to a spot to Keith Nichol coming off a slant.  Now if this spot is open it's a first down, but corner back Ricardo Allen is in this spot, and 35 yards later Purdue is up 14-7.
  • Hey, Edwin Baker scores!  Neat! Surely Dan Conroy can make this extra point!  *DOINK* Aw, hamburgers.  14-13 Purdue.
  • Remember those late hit penalties from a few weeks ago?  They're still here!  Purdue gets one of these and a holding call on their 2nd quarter touchdown drive.  Purdue 21-13.

Purdue would add another touchdown to make it 28-13.  After a Michigan State punt early in the 4th quarter expectations for a win were looking slim, at best.  Hope can come in many forms though.  It could be through a kind word from a friend.  It can come in the form of a new job opportunity.  It can also come by the wings of a magnificent arm-punt, which is what happened yesterday.  Henry lofted a ball to no one in particular, resulting in an easy interception by Chris L. Rucker.  Four plays later Cousins completed a five yard pass to B.J. Cunningham to make the score 28-20.

(Brief quibble of the day - why did the coaching staff only go for one here?  I'd much prefer that MSU went for two in that scenario; if they miss, they know they need two scores, if they get it, they can go for the extra point later.  I'd love to know the game theory behind this to see which is more advantageous.)

After the TD MSU held Purdue to a three-and-out.  Sadly this three-and-out started at the MSU 40 thanks to porous kick coverage, and Carson Wiggs nailed a 52-yarder to put Purdue up 11.  From there on out it was the Kirk Cousins show.  Cousins completed 6 of his 8 passes on the next drive to 5 different receivers, including the TD and 2-point conversion tosses each to Mark Dell.  The score was now 31-28 with seven minutes left.  

After another Purdue three-and-out the Boilermaker punting team came on with one of those three-man wedges guarding the punter that's become so en vogue these days.  These wedges are quite effective at protecting the punter, with this caveat -- the blockers must actually block the rush.  Whoever was on the left end of the wedge must've forgotten that fact since Denicos Allen went around the wedge and subsequently blocked the punt.  First and goal Spartans at the Purdue three-yard line.  Two plays later Kirk Cousins ran towards the end zone, fumbling the ball shortly before the goal line.  Luckily, the ball bounced right underneath Joel Foreman who fell on it for the touchdown.  

Purdue had one last chance to score and got the ball into Michigan State territory with help from YET ANOTHER LATE HIT PENALTY.    Three ineffective plays after the personal foul Purdue was facing a 4th-and-8.  Greg Jones pressured  the quarterback out of the pocket and Henry had no choice but to wing a pass downfield.  It found the hands of Chris Norman, and that was the ballgame.

So what to take from this game?  First of all, despite the one and a half big mistakes Kirk Cousins had a great game: 28-of-37 for 276 yards, three touchdowns, the aforementioned interception, and only took one sack.  He was also playing hurt and missed some time in the first half; this is how Cousins himself put it:

I've been battling a sprained ankle and sprained shoulder three or four weeks now and they just don't heal when you keep playing on them. I've been battling and getting a lot of treatment on but they are very tender so when you get driven into the ground or twisted in the pile it's not going to react to well. Sprains are something that you can keep playing as long as you can handle the pain but it slows you down. 

It was halftime when we had to make the decision because at that point the shoulder and ankle had been aggravated. We just made the decision and went for it, and after the first series I felt I could do it. Obviously I wasn't at full strength but I was able to do it enough, but when you have players like this around you like Mark Dell, who is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, and you have a blocked punt and interceptions, which we've had in all of our close games, it makes a bad ankle and shoulder easy to deal with because you have guys helping you out.

That's one of the gutsiest performances I've seen from a quarterback in my time following Michigan State, and it explains why Cousins has seemingly fallen off in the past few weeks.  He'll have some time to rest up after the Penn State game but, to state the obvious, Michigan State will need him to play every bit as solidly minus the one or two huge mistakes against the Nittany Lions on Saturday.  All other aspects of the offense were terrific - the offensive line held Ryan Kerrigan to one sack, the receivers led by Mark Dell had great games, and Edwin Baker was solid, gaining 91 yards on 16 carries.

The defense...ugh.  They made plays when they needed to, but far too many mental mistakes occurred for me to feel comfortable about the Big Ten finale in six days.  While they didn't give up too many big plays (Purdue only had three plays of more than 20 yards, although two of those were for more than 60), the dumb penalties haven't been fixed, and Penn State's offense has finally found its stride.  To put it shortly, the defense needs to play smarter, not harder.

The regular season concludes this season at Happy Valley against a rapidly improving Nittany Lion squad.  A win guarantees a share of the Big Ten Title.  A win coupled with a Wisconsin loss against Northwestern could give the Spartans a non-Rose Bowl BCS berth, while a win and a Ohio State loss means MSU's headed to Pasadena.  Needless to say a loss and MSU is off to either the Capital One or Outback bowl, depending on whether two Big Ten teams go to BCS bowls.  

It'll be a bit frustrating to see MSU have their best season in recent memory and miss out on a BCS appearance.  On the other hand, I don't know if a cogent argument can be crafted explaining how MSU is one of the top two teams in the Big Ten if Ohio State and Wisconsin win out.  Although MSU beat Wisconsin, Wisconsin has looked like the much superior team in the second half of the season, and although Ohio State and MSU have similar resumes, Ohio State didn't lose at Wisconsin in quite the spectacular fashion that MSU did at Iowa.  Nevertheless, a Big Ten Title is pretty awesome, so all MSU can do in this situation is beat Penn State and hope for the best.