Jan. 2, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - It was the last "first" on Michigan State Class of 2012's to-do list.
Beat Michigan four-straight times for the first time since 1962 - check. Win first Big Ten championship since 1990 - check. Become the first team to win a Big Ten divisional title - check.
Win first postseason game since 2001, end five-bowl losing streak, complete the circle...
Check, check and check thanks to Monday's improbable come-from-16-points-behind, 33-30, triple-overtime victory over Southeastern Conference power and No.18-ranked Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
"It's a special finish," said fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who persevered through a career-worst-tying three-interception day to drive the Spartans 85 yards without any timeouts against the nation's No. 3 defense to force overtime. "It's hard to stack this up against everything else because I think each accomplishment is special in its own way and it's hard to compare them.
"But, this is the right way to go out. I'm just thankful for the opportunity I was given at Michigan State for the way we, as a senior class, were able to build this program up from somewhat irrelevance to hopefully a Top-10 ranking."
The No. 12 Spartans beat the team that led LSU, a team that will play Alabama for the national championship, 10-0 for most of the first half of the SEC title game and would have led by more if not for missed opportunities.
When MSU nose tackle Anthony Rashad White preserved the victory by swatting Blair Walsh's 47-yard field-goal attempt off course before it could reach the line of scrimmage, MSU (11-3) had its second-consecutive 11-win season, another first in program history.
"We've established this program among the nation's elite, and I'm very proud of that," said Cousins, who completed 27-of-50 passes for 300 yards and one touchdown.
Yes, the Spartans are saying the E-word, and they aren't shy about it.
Had MSU collapsed under the weight of a 16-0 halftime deficit in a game that started bizarrely for it - the Spartans' first play resulted in a Bulldog's safety when wideout Keshawn Martin was tackled behind the goal-line - it would have been written that head coach Mark Dantonio's program still hasn't turned the corner.
A year earlier, the Spartans looked miles away in a 49-7 loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. The gap has closed considerably from Dantonio's vantage point.
"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," said Dantonio. "I think it points towards us becoming an elite program in (the Big Ten). 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. The standard has been set by our seniors (and) we're going to have to continue to work and grow as a program. But, everything is there."
Senior tight end Brian Linthicum, saved his most impressive performance for last with a career-high seven catches for a career-best 115 yards. Although he's only been a Spartan since transferring from Clemson after his freshman season, he knows how the program used to be regarded.
"It would have been, Michigan State's good in the Big Ten but they can't compete nationally," Linthicum said. "Especially after last year, our goal was to not only win, but make a statement that we can play with teams like Alabama and Georgia, and we did that."
In the third quarter, Linthicum's 17-yard reception set up MSU's first touchdown, an 8-yard burst by Le'Veon Bell around right end, and he also caught Cousins' 2-point conversion toss.
After Georgia native Darqueze Dennard built up Michigan State's second-half momentum by running his second interception of the game back 38 yards for a touchdown, Linthicum set up the Spartans' go-ahead score quarter with a 50-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
"This was even bigger, in my opinion, than the Michigan hump," Linthicum said. "We had already beaten them three-straight times; we knew we were getting over that hump, but getting this bowl win against a national powerhouse in Georgia gets us over the hump nationally.
"I'd assume we have national respect now."
Fifth-year senior wideout Keith Nichol, who specializes in big catches, put MSU in front, 20-19, with a sticky fingered catch of a Cousin's 7-yard bullet in the back of the end zone after beating Bulldogs' cornerback Branden Smith with 8:22 left in regulation.
"I said earlier in the week that this was a final stone to turn and we did it in dramatic fashion," Nichol said. "I've been saying this would be the game I'll remember most being the last one after going through so much adversity.
"It's been an up-and-down roller coaster for us, and that game really symbolized what our careers have been about - people not giving us a chance, going through adversity in the beginning and coming out on top. It was so much fun."
The Spartans rolled up 391 yards of total offense against Georgia, which had been allowing 268.5. The Bulldogs had 339 total yards against MSU's fifth-ranked defense, but failed to pick up a first down in overtime.
On first-and-goal with 6 inches to goal, fifth-year senior Joel Foreman pulled from his left-guard position to plow open the hole Bell used to equalize the score at 27-27 with 14 second remaining in the fourth quarter.
"For us to be able to get this monkey off our back is unbelievable," Foreman said. "When we first came here as freshmen, the goal for the seniors was just to get a good enough record to get to a bowl game.
"Then it was to get to a January 1 bowl game, and we did that. But the bowl win was something that always eluded us and every year, it got to be more and more important to us. To be able to go out your last year and get what really is a program win is something that is truly a blessing."
After what turned out to be the game-winning, 28-yard field goal by Dan Conroy went through the uprights, the MSU defense still had some work to do. Defensive end William Gholston's 4-yard sack of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray set the stage for White's heroics.
It was a symbolic passing of the torch as Conroy, Gholston and White will all be back next season.
"All my dreams are right here," said senior safety Trenton Robinson. "This is one of the greatest games I've been a part of. To go out there and get this bowl win, and leave on top, and get our young guys ready to keep this elite football going, and to build this program to where it should be as is a great feeling.
"Coach D will be in a Rose Bowl and they will win a Rose Bowl. I can't wait to watch them next year."
Before Dantonio's father Justin died before the season-opener, he told his son to finish his circles.
The first one is done. Now it's time for the Spartans to start working on a second one.