For the second time in three years, the Spartans and Bulldogs clashed in a traditional New Year’s Bowl.  But unlike the 2009 tilt at the Citrus Bowl, this Outback Bowl is already an “instant classic.”  Trailing 16-0 at Half, the Spartans came back in the 3rd and 4th Quarters to catch Georgia and force Overtime.  But one OT was hardly enough for these tightly matched teams to decide it.  Only a game clinching Field Goal block avoided an incredible fourth OT session, and wrapped up another all-time Spartan comeback.  It didn’t look like it early, but the unbelievable 11th win of the season provided the perfect punctuation to the Spartans’ 2011 season long statement.

After the Spartans won the toss and kicked, the Bulldogs started at their 27 and went into a “no huddle” in hopes of slowing the Spartan Defense early.  After one 1st Down, Aaron Murray’s (Rs.-So. QB) Offense was forced to punt.  Georgia’s Drew Butler (Sr. P) got off a fantastic punt that was downed at the MSU 2.  It would not be his last of the day.

Needing space to operate with immediately, the Spartan Offense stunned the stadium by opening with a flat pass behind the line to Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR).  Martin caught it cleanly, but was quickly closed on which created a big issue since he was still in the End Zone.  Georgia’s Brandon Boykin (Sr. CB) stopped Martin with ease for the game’s first 2 points, snatching the early momentum, and leaving Spartan Nation’s collective mouth wide open.

As bad as Don Treadwell’s Offense performed last year against Alabama, Dan Roushar’s effort started no better.  It’s nearly impossible to understand why that kind of play would be called in that situation because it would only do more to encourage a Safety.  It was exactly the start the Spartans could not afford to see.

Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) then came in for the “free kick”, and Georgia took advantage as they started at their 45.  The Bulldogs moved quickly into a 3rd and 4 at the MSU 38 when Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) was flagged for a Pass Interference.  With their back’s a bit against a wall and Georgia well into the Red Zone, the Spartan Dawgs dug in and forced a 4th and 1 from the MSU 5.

Georgia’s Head Coach Mark Richt had a big-early decision to make, and made the right one (whether they made it or not) by going for it because of the opportunity to take the game over even more.  MSU’s Defense dug in again, and stuffed Ken Malcome (Rs.-Fr. RB) to take over on downs, bouncing back a bit from the awful Safety beginning.

From their 6, Kirk Cousins (Rs-.Sr. QB) looked for the first real Spartan Offense in a Bowl game since the 3rd Quarter of the ’09 Alamo Bowl.  After a couple runs from Le’Veon Bell (So. RB), Cousins found Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR) up the sideline for 25 yards to the MSU 38, and then Bell for 13 to get near mid-field.  It was their best stretch of the Half, but the Offense would then stall following a 2nd and 6 Keshawn Martin reverse that was clobbered for a 9-yard loss.  Sadler was back in to punt, and got off a good one that was downed at the UGA 11.  He would have an outstanding day yet again, as the punters dueled to the end.

With the Bulldogs deep in their own end, the Spartan D got after it and immediately forced a 3rd and 15 from the UGA 6.  But Murray dropped back with enough time to go after the gimpy Darqueze Dennard (So. CB and Georgia native), deep, and found Tavarres King (Jr. WR) for 60 monster yards, to the MSU 39.  As the 1st Quarter wound down, the Bulldogs had a 3rd and 17 from the MSU 38, with the odd 2-0 lead.  It was the defensively dominated 1st period that many expected.

The 2nd Quarter opened with a Spartan bang as Murray was hammered while scrambling by Chris Norman (So. LB).  The ball flew out quickly, and was recovered by William Gholston (So. DE) and taken to the MSU 41.  The Offense quickly went 3 and Out, however, thanks in large part to a False Start penalty before 3rd and 5 on Dan France (Rs.-So LT).  France had his hands full stopping the Bulldog all day, and the foul forced a 3rd and 10 that was just too much for MSU to convert.  Sadler was back out to shine, this time knocking a 47-yarder that went out of bounds at the UGA 12.  In a game where field position mattered so much, Sadler’s work helped to keep the Spartans in it early.

Bouncing back after the fumble, Murray was forced to make plays as the Spartans continued to stuff the UGA running game (51 yards total for the day).  After converting a 3rd and 4 to Malcolm Mitchell (Fr. WR), Murray was next stuck in a 3rd and 12 and couldn’t get away from the speed of Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB).  Allen’s sack forced another Bulldog punt, which Martin fair caught at the MSU 36.  The Spartan D had stood up again, but the Offense had yet to recover from the start.

Once again, they went nowhere.  Though Georgia could’ve been flagged for Pass Interference on 3rd and 4, the Offense again went 3 and Out.  For a unit that was rolling in the final games of the year, the shocking Safety on the first play combined with the speed and power of the Bulldogs had stone cold shut down business.  Sadler’s fourth punt of the day rolled into the End Zone, setting Georgia up at the 20 with 9:12 left in the 2nd.

Keeping with the Defensive theme, the Spartans forced a 3rd and 4 right away, and Murray felt the wrath of William Gholston once again.  This time around, the big budding superstar crunched Murray for a loss of 6, forcing another punt that Martin fair caught at the MSU 43.

With only two 1st downs at the mid-point of the 2nd Quarter, Cousins’ Offense felt continuing pressure from the Bulldogs, who quickly forced a 3rd and 9.  Georgia brought heat again, and hammered Cousins after he got off a pass towards Cunningham which was broken up.  While the Offense sputtered, Sadler continued to shine, this time with a 46-yarder that went out of bounds at the UGA 11.

It remained as tough for Murray as it was for Cousins.  The Spartan Dawgs continued to pressure, forcing a 3rd and 7 Murray toss out of bounds, and again another Drew Butler (Sr. P) punt.

Sadler was back out 3 snaps later after MSU moved it only 1 yard (their fourth straight 3 and Out), this time rolling it into the End Zone for a Touchback.  With Georgia struggling so badly to move the ball on the ground, Mike Bobo (UGA Offensive Coordinator) opened up the play book to take another shot deep.  Murray moved right then found Tavarres King on a “double move,” having beaten Trenton Robinson (Sr. S), for an 80-yard game breaker to put UGA up 9-0 with 3:06 left in the 2nd.

After a decent first kick return effort from Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr. RB), the Offense still couldn’t get going.  After a slow developing 3rd down pass to Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE) was whacked for a loss, Sadler was back out quickly to punt.  This punt looked good early, but ended in a Spartan disaster.  Brandon Boykin (Sr. CB) caught it inside his 5, went backwards, and then went sideways.  But the Spartans coverage unit was left out of rhythm, and somewhat out of their lanes.  Boykin carries first class speed, and got to his top gear as he ditched Sadler’s final tackling effort.

Boykin added to his 1st Half MVP effort by going 92-yards for the score to break the game open, 16-0.  Though it looked like Georgia would again be pinned in deep, the Spartans instead had to get their minds around a 92-yard TD effort and a full two-score deficit.  It was hardly a bounce back to the long Georgia TD pass, and exactly what Georgia was looking for to levy a 1st Half knockout.

After the 16-0 1st Half, the Spartans weren’t completely knocked out, but quite deep into the ropes and showing no signs of an Offensive revival.  It was close for about 27-minutes, but blown open in just under 3.  The Half was shaped by three big plays, with the Bulldogs looking much more like the team that wanted to be in the Outback Bowl, and the Spartans like the one having a bit of a hard time getting over their Bowl destination, again.  Oh, what a different story the final 30:00 of regulation would be.

The 3rd Quarter opened with a similar look as the Offense stayed dormant going and Out.  The Offensive Line remained too ineffective to give Cousins time to throw, or his running backs space to run free.  Sadler came back out to drop a punt to the UGA 21.  He’d end up with 8 punts for 401 yards, 2 Touchbacks, 4 inside the 20, and a 50.1 yard-average in the end.

With the Spartans coming out flat, Murray had a chance to stretch the Bulldogs lead to the nearly insurmountable three-score range.  But the Spartan Defense continued to bring the most energy in Green and White.  On 1st and 10 from his 35, Murray threw errantly and into the hands of Darqueze Dennard for the pick.  MSU started at the UGA 48, which was by far their best starting point of the day.

After going nearly nowhere all day, the Spartans went to the air with big catches from B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) and Linthicum to set MSU up with a 1st and 10 from the UGA 18.  Needing points no matter what, the Spartans handed to Bell, who went around the end on a 2nd and Goal for the 8-yard TD, making it 16-6.  Given the math, MSU lined up to go for the 2-point conversion, and Cousins caught Georgia in a blown coverage as he threw to Linthicum over the middle to make it 16-8, and quickly a one-score game.

After the kick return was stuffed at the 17, the Bulldogs were sent quickly to a 3 and Out, forcing another Butler punt.  Martin made a few Bulldogs miss, but only picked up 4-yards.  Cousins took over at the MSU 35, with a jump in the Spartans’ and 6:17 left in the 3rd.  After a 23-yard 1st Down pass to Linthicum, a False Start flag on Joel Foreman (Rs.-Sr. LG) really slowed their momentum and backed MSU up to the UGA 47.  Two snaps later, Sadler was in again to punt.  This one was up and heading inside the 5 as a few Spartans gave chase to it at the Goal Line.  Kurtis Drummond (Rs.-Fr. S) toed the line and downed it perfectly at the Bulldog 1-yard line.

Unsurprisingly, the Bulldogs pounded it straight ahead on the first two snaps, but left Murray with a 3rd and 9 as the game’s physical intensity picked up.  But to Pat Narudzzi and the Spartans’ surprise, Murray handed off to Malcome for another run, and this time a 10-yard gain.

He took the next for 21 yards, out to the UGA 33.  But that momentum was lost on 1st Down as Murray dropped back, looked left, but then made a big error throwing it again right to MSU’s Dennard.  Dennard had nothing but an open 38-yards to make it a 16-14 game.  Going for 2-points again, Cousins flipped a shovel pass underneath to Martin, who was tripped up enough to keep the score at 16-14.  The Spartans were clearly alive and in a game that looked all but over at the Half, and Murray looked more like a Sophomore Quarterback than he had all day.

After starting at their 17, Georgia found a little success on the ground for the first time in a while.  Looking a bit shaken by his two interceptions, Murray watched the 3rd Quarter clock run out with his Bulldogs facing a 2nd and 14 from the UGA 37.  After he dropped back to open the 4th, Murray was again swarmed and sacked, this time by Chris Norman, setting up a 3rd and 20.  The Spartans Defensive pressure again made the difference, and truly kept them in the game while the Offense did nothing.  This Butler punt ended a fair catch at the MSU 27.

Two snaps later, the Spartans were back into a 3rd and long again (8), and the Bulldog Defense was more aware of the urgency the Spartans were bringing.  Cousins took the snap, stepped up into the pocket, and hummed a strike over the middle to Martin near mid-field.  The Spartan momentum continued as their Seniors smelled an Outback lead for the first time all day.

But again two snaps later, Cousins faced 3rd and 10.  This time the Bulldogs brought heat and Cousins rushed a throw towards the sideline that the blitz was coming from.  The short arm flip was picked clean by Shawn Williams (Jr. FS) and brought back 44 yards before Larry Caper (Jr. RB) saved a TD at the Spartan 12.  The Spartan momentum looked zapped.  The Defense would have to save the day again.

Georgia again found a swarming bunch of Spartan Dawgs, who slammed the Bulldogs backwards a few yards to force a 32-yard Field Goal that Blair Walsh (Sr. PK) converted to make it 19-14.  The Spartan Defense and Caper saved Cousins’ interception from creating a two score hole.  It might have been Caper’s biggest play since the Michigan game in ’09.

Nick Hill again got a burst on the kick return and brought it 35 yards, out to the MSU 41.  On 1st Down, the Spartans went deep into the play book with a surprise Counter-Screen to Linthicum that the big Senior took for 50 yards to the UGA 9.  The Bulldogs were caught by complete surprise, and again on their heels in serious danger.

After Mark Richt called a Time Out before 2nd down, the Spartans looked to be in “3 down territory.”  Cousins threw a 2nd down try away, and then found Nichol over the middle on 3rd down to take the lead, 20-19.  For the third straight time, MSU had to line up for the 2-point try mathematically, and didn’t get off their best effort.  Cousins’ dump down to Martin was far too short of the Goal Line against such a speedy Georgia Defense, so the Spartans were left to defend a 1-point lead with just over half the 4th Quarter to play.

After the kick return was brought to the 18, Murray looked to steady himself and his Offense down the stretch.  After a 1st Down completion to Mitchell, Murray again looked deep (where Georgia had the most success Offensively all day) and found King again for a 53 yard chunk, down to the MSU 11.  The once sleepy Outback Bowl was now bloomin’ hot.

After a run was stuffed and Murray was nearly picked off on 2nd down, the Bulldogs lined up for a 3rd and 12.  The Spartans somehow left their new found nemesis Boykin wide open, who eased in for the 13-yard TD to make it 25-20.  Lining up for the 2-point conversion, Murray scrambled left and then found Mitchell sitting just past the Goal Line to make it 27-20 with 6:44 to play.

Given Hill’s success on the prior two kicks, Georgia popped one up short that was held on to by Niko Palazeti (Rs.-Fr. FB) at the MSU 29.  From there, MSU moved through the air via a Keshawn Martin option-pass to Linthicum and then a Cousins flip to Todd Anderson (Rs.-Sr. FB), down to the Georgia 36.  After the clocked dipped below 5:00, Cousins had a 3rd and 2 from the 27.

On what appeared to be the game’s critical down, Cousins had Linthicum open over the middle, but had his pass tipped up by the Bulldogs stand out Alec Ogletree (So. LB) long enough for their Nose Tackle John Jenkins (Jr.) to pull in and hang on for the turnover at the UGA 30.  It looked like the Spartans were going to come up short of completing a special comeback.

Again needing their best effort of the day, the Spartan D had Murray quickly into a 3rd and 3 with 3:46 left.  After MSU’s second Time Out, UGA was whistled for a False Start to bring up a 3rd and 8.  But on that snap, Georgia changed their cadence (as mentioned in the Spartan Nation Scouting Report and Prediction before the game) in an effort to draw Jerel Worthy Offsides.  It worked, and Worthy’s flag brought the series back to more manageable 3rd and 3.

On that critical down, Murray threw towards the sideline and into tight coverage from Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB).  The ball was broken up, but Adams was whistled for Pass Interference to extend the drive with another painful Penalty against MSU in a post-season game.  It could’ve been the close Penalty call that fans would have remembered most when looking back down the road.

Not to be deterred, the Spartan Defense did their job and quickly forced a Georgia punt, thanks in part to conservative Georgia play calling.  Butler’s final kick was downed at the MSU 15, leaving Cousins with 85 yards and 1:55 to go for a game tying 7-points.  Cousins got to work with a 15-yard pass to Nichol over the middle to the MSU 30.  Then found Cunningham (who was clearly interfered with) for 7 more.

Cousins went back to Cunningham again, who nearly broke it big, for his third great thrown in a row and 22 more yards.  After Bell took a flip for 3 to the sideline, Cousins had the biggest run of his career as he scrambled for 20 and out of bounds at the Georgia 18.  The Bulldogs needed a Time Out, had two in their pocket, but didn’t call one to take a much needed breather.

On a 2nd and 4 with 43-seconds left at the 12, Cousins lofted one towards Cunningham in the End Zone that was broken up out of bounds.  On 3rd and 4, Cousins found Martin crossing the over the middle, but his knee hit the turf about a yard short of the Goal Line with 34-seconds to play.

After the replay review correctly spotted the Martin catch, Cousins and company needed another yard and a PAT to tie the Outback Bowl at 27.  With no Time Outs left but enough time to safely run the ball, the Spartans handed to Bell, who was stopped short.  The play earned a Face Mask Penalty against UGA, which didn’t mean much that close to the Goal Line.

Before that 1st down, Georgia called its second Time Out.  Cousins then had Cunningham wide open in the End Zone coming out of motion, but overthrew him wide.  After Georgia jumped Offsides, there was still enough time on 2nd Down to run the ball, and the Spartans did just that as Le’Veon Bell fought his way through the Bulldogs for the TD to make it 27-26 with 19 ticks to go.

If ever there was time not to fake it, it was this.  The PAT snap was poor and into the turf, but completely saved by Brad Sonntag (Rs.-Sr.).  Sonntag was able to get it up in just enough time for Dan Conroy (Rs.-Jr. PK) to tie the game at 27.  It would essentially be the start of their heavy work load.

Kicking to Boykin one more time, the Spartans stopped him at the 23.  Though they had one Time Out left, 19-seconds, and an amazing amount of success throwing the ball deep on the day, Mark Richt decided just to kneel on it to force the game into Overtime.  It didn’t make much sense then, and it still doesn’t right now.

Georgia won the all important Overtime coin toss, and elected to play Defense first.  Starting at the 25, Cousins gave inside to Bell for 3 yards.  Facing pressure up the middle on 2nd down, Cousins and Bell couldn’t connect as the pass sailed out of bounds, forcing 3rd and 7.  Cousins then dropped back and looked for Cunningham over the middle, who looked clearly bumped by All-American Bacarri Rambo (Jr. S), but a flag was not thrown.

Rambo used that bump to pick Cousins off and end the Spartans’ drive.  The Bulldogs were also whistled for a 15-yard Personal Foul after the INT.  Because of some stupid Overtime rule, that flag was never applied.  It probably shouldn’t have reversed the interception, but a Personal Foul there doesn’t back up the offending team 15-yards on their possession?  That would seem to make the most reasonable sense.

In any case, the Bulldogs needed only a Field Goal to take the big Bloomin’ Onion for good.  Their Offense played like the only needed 3, kneeling down on 2nd to bring up a 3rd down Field Goal try from 42-yards, far from a sure thing.  Blair Walsh (Sr. PK) pushed it just right of the Goal Post to force a surprising second Overtime session.

Starting on Offense this time, Murray just missed connecting with Mitchell (covered tight be Adams) on 1st Down in the End Zone, was chased out of bounds on 2nd down after a key False Start Penalty, and lined up in 3rd and 15 from the 30.  Murray threw across the field, and was nearly picked again by Dennard, this time forcing Walsh to try again from 47 yards out.  Though it started well outside the Goal Post this time, Walsh controlled a draw safely to put Georgia up 30-27.

With one last chance to make a statement in 2011, the Spartans knew what they had to do.  Cousins looked short and wide to Martin on 1st down, who caught it but was ultimately ruled down by replay at the UGA 18 after a gain of 7.  Cousins next looked to the Linthicum on the short side of the field, and had to throw it away.  On 3rd down under quick heat, Cousins looked for Nichol in the End Zone, but it never had a chance.  So Dan Conroy came back out for a 35-yarder from the right hash in order to force a third Overtime of Outback Bowl fun, and nailed it.

Right back to Offense again, the Spartans got only 3 yards on the first two downs and used their one Time Out before a 3rd and 7.  Lining up in an empty set, Cousins found Bell for a huge 8 yards and the 1st Down to the UGA 14.  Sticking with the hot hand, Bell took the next two hand offs to the 6, setting up 3rd and 2.

Cousins had Martin sneaking across and underneath coverage, but the pass was too high to hold onto this time, bringing Conroy back out for a 28-yard try from the tougher angle for a right footer.  After a 5-yard Delay of Game flag (possibly by design), another shaky snap was handled by Sonntag, and Conroy made the 28-yarder to make it 33-30.

Needing 3 points to force a fourth Overtime, and 6 to win it in front of his hometown, Murray looked to the air on 1st and 2nd Down but found nothing good.  The Spartan Defense was still locking things up pretty well.  Facing a 3rd and 10, Georgia needed at least a few yards to make the next Field Goal try more manageable.  As Murray dropped back, the Spartans’ stud Gholston burned through his protection and crushed the Georgia Quarterback one last time for a loss of 4, to the MSU 29.

The Defense had done it again by forcing a 47-yard try (downwind) that the Bulldogs had to have.  Given the length of the kick, Blair Walsh had to strike it with the trajectory needed for a longer one.  It never had a chance, however, as Anthony Rashad White (Jr. NT) got his hands up to block the lower ball and give Spartan Football its first Outback Bowl win, 33-30.

It will go down as the best Outback Bowl of all-time, and probably the Bowl of the 2011 season.  But that’s nothing new to the 2011 Spartans.  This is already their third entry in the contest for College Football’s “Game of the Year,” and might just take the cake.

For all that Spartan Football has been through this year, this was a quite the ending.  And for the entire statement this program has crafted to College Football this year, the Triple-Overtime comeback win was quite the punctuation mark they could add.  Though they came out looking flat and were pronounced “done” at Half Time by many fans, the entire ESPN family of networks, and even many in Spartan Nation, they never gave up.  They forced their way back into a game it looked like they had little business being in for a Half, then they put it all together when they had to have it most, in order to finish the storybook ending.

It’s like they’ve been saying around Michigan State University for a little while now…Spartans will.

 Today’s Three Stars

1.  The Entire Spartan Defense—Without them, their 17 Tackles for Loss, and the two Dennard pick offs from Aaron Murray, there is no tasty Bloomin’ Onion comeback.

2.  Kirk Cousins—No one led this program more over these last four years, and he got it done with “money” throws when everyone in the Sunshine state knew he was going to throw it.

3.  Brad Sonntag—If he doesn’t save that bad snap on the Field Goal try at the end of the 4th, there’s no 27-27 tie, only a most bitter ending to post-season play.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. The Big Ten should never give up their tie to the Rose Bowl.  No matter the Bowl or Playoff system, opening up the Rose Bowl to non-Big Ten schools should never be considered.  It’s “The Masters” of College Sports, and the only College event, along with Army-Navy, that transcends the entire sport.
  2. The Big Ten should immediately rearrange it’s Bowl lineup so fans can watch each Big Ten team playing, especially in the traditional New Year’s games.  You can watch two games at a time, but you cannot watch four.  Pitting the Outback, Gator, Ticket City, and Capital One Bowl against each other in the early afternoon is simply ridiculous scheduling that should not be tolerated.
  3. The Big Ten should do whatever it can to get a future slot in the Peach Bowl.  Atlanta is not only a major city, but has about the easiest airport access in the world to go along with major highway access.  The Peach Bowl is the only game playing on the evening of the year’s last day, and the city offers plenty of other things for fans to make a nice trip of.  While the weather might not be as warm as some other locations, owning the evening stage on New Year’s Eve and playing in a city that will soon host the College Football Hall of Fame should provide more than enough insight for the Big Ten to push for a way into Atlanta for NYE.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum