Upon Further Review: Seniors Leave Lasting Impression in Final Home Game
Nov. 21, 2010
It was only fitting that to become the winningest senior class in Michigan State history, one final, grueling test had to be completed.
Seventeen seniors - and one determined football team fighting for its first Big Ten title in 20 years - saw themselves trailing Purdue, 28-13, with the clock ticking not only in the fourth quarter, but for many, their careers at Spartan Stadium.
But if the 2010 Spartans have showed anything, it's their resiliency, and the ability to fight through adversity, time and time again.
All Michigan State needed was a spark, a turnover, a big play, something to turn the tide against the hungry Boilermakers, who were fighting for their bowl lives.
Of course, "the most important play in football" - the punt, according to head coach Mark Dantonio - would be in the middle of the action yet again.
Coaches love to talk about field position and special teams. With plays like "Little Giants" against Notre Dame, "Mouse Trap" against Northwestern, and a good ole fashioned punt return by Keshawn Martin against Wisconsin, it's fair to say the often neglected third unit has caught the attention of Spartan fans.
The rally started innocently enough when Dantonio, facing a 15-point deficit, elected to punt facing a fourth-and-8 hole from the Purdue 44. He didn't panic and step on the gas pedal with nearly 13 minutes to play. He played the field position card with his All-America caliber punter, Aaron Bates, and the senior co-captain promptly pinned the ball down to the Boilermaker 4-yard line.
With Purdue stuck on its own goal line, in front of the student section and a roaring crowd thirsty for a play, it was time for the Spartans to deliver. And did they ever. A furious 22-point scoring binge soon unfolded, leaving the adoring Spartan faithful to believe this was indeed a championship season.
The spark from the punt caught fire when Purdue quarterback Rob Henry, a red-shirt freshman who showed poise throughout the game, made his first huge mistake as he lofted a downfield pass into the arms of senior Chris L. Rucker. Rucker gladly accepted the gift and sprinted down the sideline to the Purdue 20, and instantly the Spartans were in the red zone ready to score.
"It got electric after C.L. Rucker's interception - that is when it started," said Dantonio. "It is just like anything, sometimes things start to roll and it gets hard to stop it."
But after Purdue responded with a 54-yard kickoff return that led to a 52-yard field goal, the Spartans again were down two scores.
Cousins, who had left the game in the first half and was playing with intense pain in his left shoulder and ankle, quickly completed three straight passes and marched MSU to the Purdue 37. His fourth pass appeared to be an apparent touchdown to Cunningham, but it was ruled incomplete on the field and in the replay booth.
The letdown didn't last for long. On the next play, Cousins and Cunningham connected for a 28-yard reception, giving the Spartans first-and-goal. On second down, Cousins threaded the needle with a spectacular 9-yard pass between two defenders and found senior Mark Dell for a touchdown. Needing to go for two, Cousins' precise laser to the front corner of the left end zone just got past the Boilermaker corner and into the hands of Dell.
"Kirk is just a phenomenal player and you can see the drive and toughness he came out with," said Dell, who finished with two touchdowns and 108 receiving yards, his fourth 100-yard receiving game of his career. "With a banged up ankle he showed how much toughness he has and showed he is a leader for this team and helped us with the win...He put it right where the defender couldn't get it and it made my job easy."
Clinging to a three-point lead, 31-28, with 6:54 remaining in a hostile environment, Purdue was on its heels. Spartan Stadium was rocking.
The Spartan defense then stepped up with a three-and-out, forcing the Boilermakers to punt. Another one of the "most important" plays in football was about to unfold. At the very worst, MSU was looking at getting the ball around midfield, in great position for a score. But red-shirt freshman Denicos Allen had even a better plan. He stormed around the left end and leapt into the air, getting such a great jump he actually ended up blocking the punt with his stomach.
"Play of the game," said Dantonio.
The blocked punt left MSU 3-yards from taking the lead. After a failed first-down rushing attempt, Cousins dropped back to pass on second down, looking for the receiver who would make the game-winning touchdown. But nothing was there except an open middle lane. So Cousins put the pain aside and sprinted toward the end zone, performed his best John Elway impersonation, and outstretched the ball the ball over the plane of the goal line before getting hit and fumbling the ball. Joel Foreman recovered the fumble, but the side judge already had his arms raised. Touchdown Michigan State. As Cousins hobbled off the field, the extra point put MSU up, 35-31.
"You just react when you're playing football and being an athlete," Cousins simply said of his clutch TD run, as if he wasn't playing with a sprained ankle and shoulder. "You see the seam and nothing is open, so I went for it."
"He is resilient and a competitor, he has toughness, and is the leader of our football team," remarked Dantonio. "When your leader does things, people follow. Leadership sometimes is thrust upon people, and it was certainly thrust upon him in the fourth quarter. He needed to get it done, down 15 (points); we needed to make plays somehow and some way."
Purdue had one last chance to spoil the comeback and ruin the Spartans' afternoon. Under fire, the Boilermakers calmly moved the ball down the field in the closing minutes, and after two first downs and a personal foul penalty, the Boilermakers had the ball on the Spartan 22.
Fourth-and-8 soon arrived as three downs produced just 2 yards. Henry rolled out to pass on the game's decisive play, but he was quickly disrupted by a charging Greg Jones, who wasn't about to let his storied career include a Senior Day loss. Jones popped Henry to the ground, leading to an ill-advised interception to linebacker Chris Norman that sealed the game.
The sidelined erupted and Spartan Stadium exhaled. From "Little Giants" in overtime to beat Notre Dame, to handling Top-10 Wisconsin, to a 15-point fourth-quarter rally against Purdue, it would indeed be a perfect home season at 7-0.
"Going into this game, I kept trying not to think about it being my last game here," said Jon Misch. "It started to get a lot harder as everything started to come at me. Every moment I was on the field, I was trying to take it in and say, `This might be my last one.' Winning like that kind of puts in all together and makes it a perfect day."
On a chilly November afternoon in their last appearance in Spartan Stadium, the 2010 seniors walked off the field with the 32nd victory of their careers, a school record, and the 10th of the season, which ties a program record. They will forever be tied with Dantonio, for they are the first senior class to play all of their games under him. Their records go hand in hand - winningest senior class, and the coach who has won the most games in his four first seasons than any other in Spartan history.
"There were a lot of tears out there on that field," Dantonio said at his post-game press conference. "When you work for something so hard, and it finally comes to fruition, it's going to be emotional at the end. That's just the way everything is. That's the way it was for our football team."
Together, they now have a chance to be the winningest team in the 114-year history of Michigan State Football.
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