Three things that stood out from MSU's 42-41 win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl
1. That's some way for Pat Narduzzi to go out
MSU's defense gave up an FBS bowl-record 603 passing yards, but shut out Baylor in the fourth quarter. The final defensive series went sack, sack, interception — despite not getting much pressure against the quick passing all day. It was certainly a mixed bag of good and bad for Narduzzi's finale.
It was just the fifth time this season Baylor went a full quarter without scoring. Three of those were fourth quarters in blowout wins, which the Cotton Bowl appeared to be heading toward. Couple that with minus-20 rushing yards, and it was one of the odder defensive box scores you'll see.
As for the idea that MSU's defense has been "figured out," it's nothing new. Speed in the slot and accurate quarterbacks have always been the weakness. The thing is, most schools don't have the horses to do it. The offenses that succeeded against these MSU's Ds (2011 Wisconsin, 2014 Oregon, 2014 Ohio State, 2014 Baylor) have the horses. This defense is about forcing college players to do things most can't. Those teams can.
2. The defensive future is going to have to grow up quickly
Baylor moves the ball on everyone. We know this. But couple the defensive performance with the loss of Trae Waynes, Kurtis Drummond, Taiwan Jones, Marcus Rush and potentially Shilique Calhoun, the defense looks like it's going to take another step back next year.
Darian Hicks tentatively moves into the No. 1 corner spot. I think Demetrious Cox is No. 2, coming over from safety. He has looked good at times, but was burned for a long touchdown in the Cotton Bowl. Neither Hicks nor Cox have shown the ability to play press coverage, and the lack of physical play led to a lot of big plays this year.
I'm curious how, with the personnel and Narduzzi departures, Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett will adjust the defensive system. Will they pull back on some of the aggressiveness? Because I don't think the current plan is going to work with next year's defensive roster.
3. Connor Cook's ability to rebound continues to be amazing
Cook's interception on the failed (because of holding) screen pass was one of the craziest things I've seen in a football game. Was he attempting to throw it in hopes of getting a PI call? But flicking it like that, just so much bad. Cook looks like a first-round pick or undraftable, depending on the throw. That play was bad, and it should have cost MSU the game, if not for the needless block on the back.
But after a defensive stop, Cook completed two passes for 30 yards and ran for 19 yards on three carries, as MSU got into the end zone and cut the deficit to one score. It was just like the Rose Bowl a year ago, when Cook responded from a terrible pick-six (on, guess what, a screen pass!) with a touchdown drive.
Dantonio confirmed Monday that Cook will return next season. When he does get evaluated for the NFL, his mental makeup will be a huge selling point. Cook represents the program turnaround under Mark Dantonio. Every time you think Sparty No! is back, he and the program come back strong and come out on top.
(Bonus 4: MSU was quite lucky to win that game. If not for the pointless block in the back, the offensive facemask that never gets called and two missed field goals, MSU is not even in position to win that game. Still, they won and deserve credit for it. But there's a reason MSU had less than a 1 percent chance to win at one point in the fourth.)
(Bonus 5: For all the Shawn Oakman memes, Jack Conklin took care of him for the most part. Oakman got one sack, but that was about all he did.)