Kirk Cousins knows there's no gray area when it comes to the Michigan-Michigan State game.
The Spartans' junior quarterback and native of Holland, Mich., expects to feel one of two ways when Michigan State's team bus departs Michigan Stadium sometime after sundown on Saturday.
"When you win this game, it's the highest of highs," Cousins told me Tuesday, "and when you lose this game, it's the lowest of lows. There's no in-between. It's one extreme or the other."
The challenge for Cousins is to steady his emotions during the game. Quarterbacks who get drunk on first-half success or wallow in self pity end up with their heads down as they leave the field.
"It's not easy," he said. "You want to find that intensity that helps you play at the highest level, but at the same time, a quarterback, especially, you don't want to be playing off of too much emotions where you're not staying true to your reads and you're not being systematic. It's just a matter of finding that right focus."
Cousins always has been a focused and sharp guy off the game field -- he's a pre-med student and a back-to-back Academic All-Big Ten selection -- but this season he's also display the same qualities between the lines on Saturdays.
After making several mistakes in clutch situations as a first-year starter in 2009, Cousins is coming through when Michigan State needs him to this year. There was no better example than last Saturday against then-No. 11 Wisconsin, when Cousins made two huge third-down throws and then found B.J. Cunningham on fourth-and-goal in the end zone to complete a 15-play, 84-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.
Cousins is completing 82 percent of his passes (32 of 39) with three touchdowns and one interception in the second halves of games this season. Not surprisingly, the Spartans are 2-0 in games decided by 10 points or fewer after going 4-6 in 2009.
"We've learned how to win," Cousins said. "Any time you have to go four quarters with a good team, you gain a lot of experience and a lot of confidence. We've done that both against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. The only thing you wish you had as well in your back pocket is to do that on the road."
Michigan State plays its first true road game this year in Ann Arbor (the Spartans technically were the "road" team Sept. 11 against Florida Atlantic, but the game took place in nearby Detroit). Cousins went 2-3 on the road last season and threw five of his nine interceptions in games played away from Spartan Stadium.
This season, the 6-3, 202-pound Cousins is completing 67.5 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four picks, ranking 13th nationally in passer rating (164.8 yards per game). He has been particularly effective on play-action passes, as he demonstrated throughout the Wisconsin game. Michigan State's strong run game helps, but Cousins has worked hard to perfect his footwork and his shoulder level and often asks Spartans defenders to assess his ball fakes.
"I thought he was very good last year, and he’s doing the same things this year," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "He can run, he's athletic, he's a great leader, he can make all the throws.
"He's an outstanding player.”