Dec. 30, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. - Le'Veon Bell proved to be as good at predicting how Michigan State's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl game against TCU would unfold as he is at carrying the ball.
Earlier in the week, Bell said the Spartans would pound on the Horned Frogs' Big 12-leading rushing defense until it wore down.
On Saturday night in Sun Devil Stadium, Bell gained 107 of his 145 yards and ran for a touchdown in the second half to lead MSU to a 17-16 come-from-behind victory and earn Offensive Player of the Game honors.
"I definitely felt that happening," Bell said. "From the first snap when we ran power at them, even if they stopped us for a yard or 2, I just felt so confident those holes were going to start opening up and those 1- and 2-yard gains would turn into 7- and 8-yard gains."
Bell averaged 4.5 yards per carry and he completed his first career pass, out of the wildcat formation, for 29-yard gain to fullback TyQuan Hammock. The play set up MSU's first touchdown that cut TCU's lead to 13-7 and completed a 14-play, six-minute-and-34-second, 90-yard drive.
"We ran the ball a couple times in a row to wear those guys out and then we had the power pass and I ended up throwing the ball to TyQuan," Bell said. "Those guys wanted to stop the run so bad that (offensive coordinator Dan) Roushar guessed we could go over the top against them.
"We got in a rhythm and we got the score."
The performance will launch Bell, who completed the second-best single-season rushing performance in school history with 1,793 yards, in one of two directions.
He'll either be among the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy going into the 2013 season if he decides to return to MSU for his senior season, or he'll be an NFL Draft pick in April.
Now that the season is over, Bell can turn his full attention to evaluating the information he receives from the NFL and Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio regarding his pro potential.
"I don't know yet," Bell said. "I just want to talk it over with my family and I want to do it the right way and talk to the coaches about it and my teammates to make sure I make the right decision.
"There are pros and cons to both decisions and hopefully, I make the right one and keep moving forward."
Michigan State experienced a stunning development in the quarterback department with the official debut of red-shirt freshman backup Connor Cook, who had completed 5-of-6 passes in two career appearances during the regular season.
Dantonio had Cook written into the game plan for a first-half series with the intention of getting him real game experience heading into next season.
He completed his first pass for 6 yards to tight end Dion Sims and seemed to give the offense a lift in place of junior starter Andrew Maxwell even though the drive netted just 16 yards on five plays.
However, after Maxwell's first drive of the second half went backwards - from the MSU 21 to the 13 - Cook got another chance. He kept that 90-yard drive going with an 11-yard scramble on third-and-7 at the MSU 13, and completed the possession by hitting wideout Aaron Burbridge in stride for a 15-yard touchdown.
It was Cook's first collegiate touchdown pass and in the fourth quarter he directed the 45-yard drive that ended on Dan Conroy's game-winning 47-yard field goal.
"Who ever would have thought this would have happened to me," said Cook, who completed 4-of-11 passes for 47 yards. "It's a big shocker, completely surreal."
Through it all, however, Cook kept his wits about him despite his lack of experience.
"It's just natural," he said. "I've always been real calm back there. I don't now what it is, with all the bodies flying around, and guys blitzing. Ever since high school, I just stood back there with confidence.
"It felt great (to be in there for the winning drive). It's nice to know that Coach D had confidence to choose me to lead the team in that situation. I keep saying that it feels like a dream to sit on the bench the whole season and then finally get my number called in the bowl game and respond the way I did."
Quarterbacks coach Dave Warner said Cook's abilities were well suited to TCU's read-and-react defense.
"The one thing I think he adds right now is he's a little more athletic than Andrew," Warner said. "I know he was able to pick up one first down scrambling and I know he moved around a little more on some other situations.
"That's what we feel like he does. He had a little bit of a hot hand, and he did good."
Warner underplayed the fact the Cook practiced very little with the first offense this week in Arizona.
"He runs the same plays with the second offense going against the scout team, so it wasn't really that big a deal who he was taking snaps from," Warner said. "It just came down to executing our offense."
In the first half, the Spartan defense was victimized by a 19-yard run that led to a TCU touchdown and 59- and 61-yard pass plays on drives that ended with field goals.
However, after giving up 204 yards of total offense and 13 first downs before halftime, Michigan State's defense limited TCU to five first downs and 84 total yards in the second half (27 plays; 3.1 yards per play).
The Spartans didn't allow any third-down conversions in the second half (0-for-7). MSU forced the Frogs to go three-and-out on 4-of-8 second-half possessions.
Defensive back RJ Williamson's recovery of a muffed punt at the TCU 4-yard line led to Bell's touchdown that but MSU ahead 14-13.
"We gave up 13 points and our defensive coaches came in and let us know it was time to buckle down," Williamson said. "We just executed a little better. Throughout the whole game our defense played well, but there were just two big passes we gave up.
"We decided not to let them get anything in the second half." With two takeaways, including an interception by strong safety Isaiah Lewis, and no giveaways, the Spartans ended up at plus-2 in turnover margin.
Maxwell held his head high after completing 6-of-15 passes for 28 yards despite getting pulled.
"It's a team win, man, and you're never going to complain about a bowl or the way we won a game," he said. "That's my focus right now, on the team and on the victory. I thought Connor did a great job when he stepped in there.
"Offensively, we weren't doing a lot and hitting plays down the field, and Connor had showed something in there that caused (the coaches) to go back to him."
Maxwell expects a spirited competition with Cook, and freshman Tyler O'Connor, heading into spring drills.
"Nobody's job is safe and you have to guard against that and complacency," he said. "Coach Dantonio always says he's going to put the best player on the field, so there isn't a job in this locker room that's locked in. You have to constantly be striving to get better and constantly striving to prove you're the guy worthy of the job."
Punter Mike Sadler, who holds for placekicks, was happy to see Conroy end his career with a game-winning field goal.
"It's a storybook ending for Dan," Sadler said. "He's been through so much and has taken a lot of criticism. I thought he had a pretty good year, too. But obviously, when games are so close, mistakes get magnified. For him to go out like that is amazing.
"I'm real happy for him and his family."
Conroy also kicked the game-winning 28-yard field goal in the third overtime to beat Georgia in last season's Outback Bowl.
Hammock only switched from linebacker to fullback for the bowl, so his timely catch of Bell's lob was fortuitous, to say least, even though he thought about calling for a fair catch because it was so high.
"I had a touchdown in mind, but I should have known better because during the week the passes from Le'Veon kept getting worse and worse and higher and higher," Hammock said. "Then, come game time it was almost a punt. I saw it come out, but then it sort of floated to my outside shoulder on me a little bit so I had to come back and get it.
"But, it wasn't too bad. It was a great play-call at that point and gave us momentum."
Jim Adams, the long-time voice of MSU Athletics, died Saturday at the age of 82 after battling respiratory illness.
Adams began working for the Michigan State radio station as a student in 1948. After joining the military and serving in the Korean War, Adams worked at stations in Kalamazoo and Waterloo, Iowa, before returning to WKAR in 1961 where he worked for 32 years until his retirement in 1993.
Adams was the play-by-play announcer of more than 1,500 Spartan athletic broadcasts and was well-known for his work on the tape-delayed replay of MSU football games on WKAR television shown several hours after the game.
Adams and long-time friend Earle Robinson were the founding hosts of WKAR's sports-talk radio program called "The Jim and Earle Show." Adams received a Special Award from the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 1998.