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2011 Outback Bowl Recap

Georgia Bulldogs vs Michigan State State Spartans - Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (3OT)

Just when you thought the Michigan State Spartans were about to get humiliated in yet another bowl game by an SEC team, something deep inside them came alive. Something in the minds and hearts of the Spartans refused to accept another wrenching early-January day against a conference nemesis. Now the outlook of a hard-luck program has been transformed heading into the 2012 offseason.

When the Georgia Bulldogs took a 16-0 halftime lead over the Spartans on Monday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, it was very hard to think that the MSU crew had a comeback in its bones and marrow. Michigan State went 11-1 in the 2010 regular season and then came to the state of Florida to play Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Michigan State promptly got drilled, 49-7, in a game that was over before halftime. The humiliation of that beatdown lasted throughout the 2011 offseason, forcing Michigan State to look deep within itself. The Spartans responded with a 10-win regular season, but after an agonizingly close loss to Wisconsin in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, coach Mark Dantonio’s team had to pick itself up heading into the 2012 Outback Bowl. Georgia was waiting to hand out a beating akin to what Alabama gave Sparty last season. This was a different Florida city – the Outback Bowl is held in Tampa while the Capital One Bowl is staged in Orlando – but the same specter of the Southeastern Conference was very much present. Then, when Georgia (also a loser of its conference championship game this season, to LSU in the SEC title tilt) uncorked an 80-yard touchdown pass and a 92-yard punt return for a pair of scores within an 87-second span just before halftime, it seemed as though a Sparty meltdown was very much in progress. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins looked body-snatched in the first half, as a lifeless MSU offense got shut out with ease by Georgia’s attacking defense. As the two teams went to the locker room for the extended bowl-game intermission, few people in America were thinking that the Spartans were about to get off the deck and make this a contest.

Boy, did they ever.

In one of the very best gut-check responses of this bowl season, Michigan State came alive in the second half. Cousins played with renewed pride, energy and focus, as the Spartans scored three offensive touchdowns while also registering a 38-yard pick-six by Darqueze Dennard against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Michigan State trailed 27-20 in the final minute, but Cousins was up to the task of leading his team back from the brink. He led his teammates downfield for a tying touchdown – a one-yard plunge by running back Le’Veon Bell – with only 14 ticks left on the clock. Overtime had arrived, and then the Spartans delivered one more amazing show of resilience.

After Cousins got picked off in the second overtime, Georgia merely needed a field goal to win. However, Michigan State’s defense – aided by conservative playcalling from Georgia coach Mark Richt – was able to force a long field goal try that UGA kicker Blair Walsh missed. Given new life, Michigan State was able to block Walsh’s subsequent field goal in the third overtime to complete its sweet victory. In one half and three overtime periods, a program’s reputation was transformed.

Not a bad way to start 2012, Michigan State. Not bad at all.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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