Dec. 30, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. - The Fates that had treated Michigan State so cruelly throughout the regular season finally smiled down upon the Spartans in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Saturday night.
The offensive drives that previously stalled in the red zone suddenly cashed in for two second-half touchdowns against TCU in Sun Devil Stadium.
The breaks that had relentlessly gone against MSU in the previous 12 games favored it this time. The key turnover that had relentlessly eluded the Spartans against the likes of Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska bounced their way for a change.
Dan Conroy, the senior kicker who endured so much scorn for costly misses on what appeared to be routine field-goal attempts, justified head coach Mark Dantonio's steadfast belief in him with his second game-winning three-pointer in as many bowls.
The defense that had been so good all season in almost every respect, except when it needed to get off the field in the late stages of five losses, sealed the deal.
And the maddeningly close games that went into the loss column five times by a total of 13 points (including a 17-16 defeat against No. 3 Ohio State) switched allegiances by a score of 17-16 over the Horned Frogs.
"This shows our resilience," a beaming William Gholston, the rangy junior defensive end who helped apply searing heat on TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, said in the jubilant locker room. "If we get knocked down, we're always going to get back up.
"I can say as a team as a whole, I feel like this is a redemption game because we have lost a lot of close ones when the mo (momentum) just wasn't on our side. Tonight, I feel like the mo was sitting there chilling with us."
There was no talk, for a change, of leaving plays on the field or the frustration of failing to complete the job.
"I go back to my little league days," Gholston said. "It's not how you start, it's how you finish and we finished strong. That's all that matters."
The way MSU started left much to be desired as the Frogs built a 13-0 halftime lead. But the Spartans resorted to:
Power football and the punishing running of tailback Le'Veon Bell to break TCU's back;
A heady relief performance by back-up red-shirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook who guided 90- and 45-yard scoring drives;
And opportunism realized.
The victory tipped the Spartans' final record to 7-6, the fifth mark above .500 in six seasons under Dantonio.
"We pushed through the tough times," Dantonio said. "The thing that was so impressive to me was we stayed composed all the way through to the end. We won against Wisconsin very close. We won against Boise (State) very close. So our guys have won.
"It's just that sometimes when you lose, it sort of gets magnified for all of us. If you're patient, things will come back to you."
Like a rushing attack that produced just 42 yards in the first half, which ended with TCU holding a commanding 204-76 advantage in total offense.
On MSU's second drive of the second half, Bell had nine of his 32 carries and 35 of his 145 rushing yards.
His biggest play came not with his feet, however, when the Frogs bit hard on the probability that he would run out of the wildcat formation on third-and-2 at the TCU 45-yard line. Instead, he catapulted the ball on what was officially recorded as a forward pass to fullback TyQuan Hammock, who circled under the ball for a 29-yard gain.
"Le'Veon has a duck that we shoot down on a trick play and falls in TyQuan Hammock's hands for a huge play," Dantonio said.
Cook did the rest. Inserted for a series in the first half by design to get experience, Cook got the nod over starter Andrew Maxwell on the crucial series because of his scrambling ability. His 15-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Aaron Burbridge was the first of his career, and the 90-yard drive for a TD was the longest by MSU this season and in its 23-bowl history.
The score made it a one-possession game and the Spartans took the lead in the most unlikely way, at least for this season.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Maxwell was separated from the ball while being tackled, but instead of a TCU player falling on it - in accordance with the theme established during the regular season -- right tackle Skyler Burkland covered it.
That led to Mike Sadler's soaring 55-yard punt that Frogs returner Skye Dawson muffed and Michigan State's RJ Williamson recovered at the TCU 4. Two plays later, tight end Andrew Gleichert gave Bell the split-second he needed to sprint into the corner of the end zone for a 14-13 lead.
"That was the only fumble recovery of my life," Burkland said. "You don't understand how bad I wanted to pick it up and run for my first touchdown of my life. But I was just happy to be there and pick it up because you never know what could have happened if I wasn't there. So yeah, it was good."
TCU kicker Jaden Oberkrom's bowl-record 53-yard field goal with 1:44 remaining may have had Spartans fans thinking, "Oh no, not again," but Cook got the winning drive started with a 14-yard pass to tight end Dion Sims and Conroy came through on the last kick of his career from 47 yards out.
"With so many close games, losing like we did so many times in this season, to have one go our way this way was definitely exciting," said Conroy, who traded in his goat horns for a golden toe like those of so many great Spartan kickers.
The Horned Frogs got the ball one more time with 55 seconds left, and they had a shifty quarterback in Boykin like those who had broken MSU's heart on so many previous occasions. But the defense turned the screws so tight that the game all but ended on Boykin's desperation throw for an incompletion on fourth-and-17 at his own 23.
"We knew when the offense was driving the ball, we were telling each other, `It's going to be on us to stop them,'" said junior cornerback Darqueze Dennard. "And that's what we wanted the whole time.
"Every game this season it came down on us, and this time we played very well and executed."