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Best Games of 2011: Michigan State Spartans win Outback Bowl of conference runners-up

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The football season is now, finally, officially in the books now that the Super Bowl has been played. Now comes the time when we can all begin looking forward to the 2012 football seasons in the college and professional ranks. But before we do, we’re taking a look at the best college football games of 2011 here at Crystal Ball Run. We got started last week and continue with our retrospective of the 2011 season’s best offerings.

In case you have missed any of the previous segments so far, here they are:

Baylor vs. TCU | Michigan vs. Notre Dame | Oklahoma State vs. Stanford

And now, we pick-up where we left off, with another bowl game that happened to go to overtime…

Outback Bowl: No. 17 Michigan State vs. No.16 Georgia
January 2, 2012 

The Quick Slant: Michigan State stuns Georgia with a second half rally and takes advantage of Georgia’s special teams miscues in overtime for the win.

Game in Brief: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (3OT)

For a half it appeared that Michigan State’s bowl fate was destined for the same outcome from a year before; a demoralizing, lackluster offensive performance against an SEC opponent. In a battle of power conference championship runners-up, Michigan State from the Big Ten and Georgia from the SEC looked to be one of the more attractive non-BCS match-ups in the country. It took some time for Michigan State to find their stride but when they did it seemed as though Georgia had lost theirs.

Georgia controlled the tempo early on, opening the game withe a five yard drive but forcing a safety on Michigan State’s first play on offense when Kirk Cousins completed a pass to Keshawn Martin in the end zone, where he was brought down. Not at all the kind of start you draw up leading up tot he game if you are Michigan State. But the Spartans defense kept the game within reach. Georgia drove the ensuing possession 49 yards to the Michigan State five-yard line, where they failed to convert on fourth and one, rather than attempt a short field goal. It would turn out to be a costly mistake by Mark Richt.

The defenses began to force punts, back and forth, turning the game in to a battle of field position. An Aaron Murray pass to Tavarres King went for 80 yards and a touchdown late in the second quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 9-0 lead. The lead was pushed to 16-0 following a 92-yard punt return by Brandon Boykin just about 90 seconds later. The momentum was entirely in Georgia’s hands, just as it seemed in the SEC Championship Game for a majority of the first half.

Michigan State got on the scoreboard midway through the third quarter with a Le’Veon Bell touchdown run capping a 48-yard drive, and a two-point conversion made it just a one-possession game. A few minutes later Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard returned an Aaron Murray interception 38 yards to make it 16-14 in favor of Georgia, following an unsuccessful two-point attempt.

The fourth quarter set the stage for a wild finish. Georgia kicked a 32-yard field goal to go up 19-14 early in the final frame, but Michigan State responded by taking their first lead of the game. A 50-yard pass on their first play of the ensuing possession set up a short touchdown pass from Cousins to Keith Nichol, giving Sparty the 20-19 lead. Georgia answered the call with a touchdown connection between Murray and Noykin, on a drive that was highlighted by a 53-yard pass to King to the Michigan State 11-yard line on the second play of the drive.

With the game on the line, Cousins locked in, taking over at his own 15-yard line with 1:55 to play. Cousins completed his first five pass attempts on the drive, helping move the football to the Georgia 12-yard line before throwing an incompletion. Bell’s 1-yard run with 19 seconds remaining set up the tie with the extra point, and Georgia’s back was practically snapped in the process.

In the overtime session Cousins opened up with a costly mistake, throwing a pick on the first offensive possession of the overtime, but Georgia failed to capitalize on the miscue, missing a 42-yard field goal attempt after a pair of safe runs that resulted in no overall yards gained. Perhaps this was the second costly mistake of the day for Richt’s squad. The two teams exchanged field goals in the second overtime, setting up the third and final overtime. Michigan State converted a 28-yard field goal but would need one more special teams play to clinch the victory. After Georgia was unable to move the football toward the end zone (two incomplete passes by Murray and a sack for a four yard loss), Blair Walsh needed to kick a 47-yard field goal to force a fourth overtime, but Michigan State blocked the attempt to put the finishing touch on a wild bowl victory.

What We Said Then (Full Story)

Georgia’s downward spiral hit bottom in overtime. After intercepting Cousins in the first overtime, Georgia opted against trying to move closer to shorten the game-winning field goal attempt by struggling kicker Blair Walsh. Instead, after a kneel-down by quarterback Aaron Murray, Richt called for the field goal on third down from his own 25, which Walsh promptly missed.

All told, Georgia failed to notch even one first down and had negative nine yards of total offense in the three OT periods.

The result fit well in a year in which the Bulldogs managed to put together a deceptive 10-win campaign. UGa lost to the four best teams on its schedule, getting beat handily by both Boise State and LSU. Best win? Maybe housing a mediocre Auburn squad.

Plenty of programs out there would kill to win 10 games in a season. In that sense, the Dawgs had a strong year.

And yet, we’re still left wondering: Will Georgia ever get right?

Hindsight is 20/20

OutbackBowlMichiganStatevGeorgiaQaqvQT67QC7lA month later this loss still has to sing for Georgia fans, but the future still looks to be somewhat promising for the Bulldogs in 2012. Georgia should once again be a legitimate contender in the SEC East, and perhaps the SEC, with the return of some solid players looking to take the next step. Georgia will get to formally welcome Missouri to the SEC on September 8 in Columbia but if they get out of the Show-Me State with a win then they should be on track for an undefeated September, which would be two steps ahead of the 2011 season. It is entirely possible Georgia is sitting pretty with a 6-0 record hading in to the bye week, and they do not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in the regular season. That puts Georgia in good position, which also brings with it a bunch of pressure to take the next step forward in Athens. If Georgia falls short fo an SEC championship, let alone an SEC East Division crown, just how much longer does Mark Richt have left?

As for the Spartans, they proved that they were no fluke, and made amends for their bitter Capital One Bowl loss the year before, a smashing loss to Alabama. Things looked ugly early for Sparty but they responded well and never seemed to really panic. It is a trait that has become synonymous with Mark Dantonio and quarterback Kirk Cousins. It was a fun ride for the program, but now they must find some replacements for some key players heading in to 2012, in a division where Michigan continues to improve and Nebraska is always going to be a threat.

Is this the end of the line for Michigan State’s lofty spot in the Big Ten, or will they continue to build on this and make another strong case as a Big Ten contender in 2012?

 

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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