Oct. 25, 2010
Michigan State football now has its version of "The Drive."
Nothing tests a team, or a quarterback, more than having to drive the length of the field in the closing minutes of a pressure-packed game on the road - needing a touchdown no less.
Cross the "game-winning touchdown drive" box off the checklist for these 2010 Spartans, who are showing that to contend for a Big Ten Championship, you have to have a flair for the dramatic.
With 7:18 on the clock in the fourth quarter at Northwestern, down 27-21, and starting from their own 12-yard line, the Spartans faced an uphill battle - and they answered by marching down the field to take the lead, and ultimately, the game.
"This is where championship teams are made," said wide receiver Mark Dell.
Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who time and time again in the offseason said he believed he had learned from his mistakes in 2009, orchestrated the drive that proved he indeed has taken yet another step further in his evolution as a leader.
It began fast with an 18-yard pass to Mark Dell, but on the next play, Cousins was sacked for a loss of 10 yards, and it was suddenly back to second-and-20.
Getting in a rhythm, Cousins connected on his third 18-yard completion of the drive to his third different receiver, B.J. Cunningham, moving the ball into Northwestern territory at the Wildcat 39.
In the most intense of moments, everything was going so smoothly, so according to plan.
With the momentum clearly swinging in Michigan State's favor, the more than 15,000 Spartan fans in attendance at Ryan Field were on their feet screaming, sensing the 17-point comeback was nearly complete; however, following the only incompletion of the drive on first-and-10, disaster nearly struck on second down - Cousins was sacked in the backfield, and the ball popped loose. Perhaps the unsung hero of the day was left guard Joel Foreman, who for a split second was the fastest man on the field, jumping on the pigskin to keep the ball in Michigan State's possession.
A deep exhale from the sideline soon transformed into reality - third-and-15.
On the next play, Cousins found Nichol in the middle of the field for a 14-yard gain, just shy of the first-down marker. On fourth-and-1 from the NU 30, there was no choice. The team that had already converted seven fourth-down conversions this season was going for it yet again.
Surprisingly, Cousins lined up in the shotgun, with four wideouts to his left. "Pound Green Pound" it wasn't. But when Cousins hit an open Charlie Gantt for 8 yards to the 22, the tide of emotion from the crowd made it feel a TD was inevitable.
A 13-yard screen pass to Baker followed, giving MSU first-and-goal from the 9. On MSU's first crack at the end zone, Cousins lofted a pass to Cunningham, who made a leaping stab at the ball and tipped it in the air - and back into his own hands - as he hit the turf. An improbable catch only fitting for this improbable drive.
Dan Conroy went on to make the biggest point-after attempt of his young career, giving the Spartans their first lead at 28-27 lead with two minutes remaining.
All told, "The Drive" covered 88 yards on 11 plays and took 5:18 off the clock. Cousins was a masterful 7-for-8 passing for 98 yards.
The Spartan defense did the rest, holding Northwestern without a first down on its next possession, forcing the Wildcats to turn the ball over on downs. Baker then added an insurance touchdown with a powerful 25-yard run at the 1:07 mark to put MSU up eight points, 35-27, and an Eric Gordon interception with 44 seconds left sealed the Spartans' first 8-0 start since 1966.
"Great team win - I can't say enough about our team," said head coach Mark Dantonio, who coached on the sidelines for the first time since suffering a heart attack after the Notre Dame game. "Last February, we talked about it being a special football team, and we continue to prove that over and over again. We came in at halftime about if you want to win big, if you want to win championships, if you want to go 8-and-0, you've got to do it the hard way at some point. Nothing is going to be easy."
"We draw strength from all the work we've done to get to this point and just look into each other's eyes and say 'hey, we have to lean on each other.'"
"The Drive" was not a sound bite, not just one highlight clip, but a series of brilliantly executed plays by the offense with all of the team's goals hanging in the balance. It defined teamwork, perseverance and poise. It's what separates teams contending for a championship, and those chasing for it.
"We draw strength from all the work we've done to get to this point and just look into each other's eyes and say 'hey, we have to lean on each other,'" said Cousins. "Football is a game of adversity, and right now, we've been doing a good job of bouncing back from that adversity and getting the job done."
The Spartans know all too well the other side of the coin - just last season, the Spartans lost three games in the final minute. It's what's keeping them "humble and hungry," according to Cousins.
"Remember where we came from," the quarterback said.
One of those bitter losses from 2009 came on the last play of the game - and it's against the opponent MSU faces next on its quest for a Big Ten title. There should be no question that the Spartans will be focused for its trip to Iowa City when it battles the No. 18 Hawkeyes next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.