Dallas Colleges: Michigan State Spartans
Pretty much everybody thought the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would be a low-scoring game, given the two outstanding defenses and the, uh, challenges facing the offenses. TCU and Michigan State lived up -- or down, depending on your point of view -- to expectations. But the finish was exciting.
The Spartans looked completely lost on offense for the first three and a half quarters, punting on each of their first eight drives. But they rode their workhorse, tailback Le'Veon Bell, and caught a big special-teams break in rallying for two late touchdowns and a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter. The Horned Frogs answered on Jaden Oberkrom's 53-yard field goal with 2:42 left. But Michigan State won it 17-16 on a 47-yard field goal from Dan Conroy with 1:01 left.
Here's a quick review of how it all went down:
It was over when: TCU's Trevone Boykin threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-18 in the final minute, extinguishing the Horned Frogs' chances. After scoring 13 points on its first four possessions, TCU had just a field goal in its final nine drives. Michigan State's defense limited the Horned Frogs to just 74 yards in the second half.
Game ball goes to: Michigan State's Bell. After a slow start, he carried the ball 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown. He also threw a 29-yard pass out of the Wildcat formation to convert a key third down on the team's first scoring drive. He accounted for 174 of the Spartans' 227 total yards, which is nothing new. Bell finished the season with a nation-leading 382 carries.
Stat of the game: Michigan State had as many punts (11) as pass completions and yet won the game. Bell had one more passing yard than starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Unsung hero: Speaking of punts, the Spartans' Mike Sadler was a busy man, and he did a great job. Sadler averaged 43.7 yards on his 11 punts and pinned three inside the TCU 20. He boomed a 52-yarder while backed into his own end zone in the second half. And his driving 55-yard punt inside the Horned Frogs' 5 sent returner Skye Dawson backpedaling. Dawson fumbled the punt, Michigan State recovered on the 4-yard line and Bell ran in for a go-ahead score.
What Michigan State learned: After losing five games by 13 points this season, the Spartans looked like they were headed for another heartbreak when Oberkrom hit that 53-yarder. Instead, unlike so many previous games this season, Michigan State found a way to make big plays in all three phases in the final two minutes. The bowl win doesn't erase the disappointment of a 6-6 regular season, and the offense still looked cringe-worthy most of the night. But Mark Dantonio's team has something to build on with a positive closing note. The spring storyline is already set, as there's a quarterback controversy brewing. Freshman Connor Cook, who hadn't thrown a pass since Week 2, gave the team more of a spark than Maxwell. With two minutes left and his team needing a score to win, Dantonio turned to Cook, not the junior he'd started in all 12 games this season.
What TCU learned: This was a rare off-year for Gary Patterson, whose team lost five of its final seven games. The good news is that the Horned Frogs are still extremely young and bring back just about everyone next year. Though facing Michigan State's offense probably seemed like a vacation compared to Big 12 play, TCU still showed that it has an elite-level defense. Improving on offense will be the key for next season. Quarterback Boykin made some big plays early but overthrew several receivers and was limping around late. He completed only 13 of 29 passes and threw an interception. He'll need to make great strides to compete with Casey Pachall next year, assuming a successful return for Pachall.
1. Balancing act: It has been the Le'Veon Bell show all season for Michigan State's offense, to the tune of a nation-leading 350 carries. The junior running back will be ready to be a workhorse again in what could be his final game in a Spartans uniform. But Michigan State needs to find other dimensions against a talented TCU defense to avoid the results we saw throughout the regular season. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his receivers have had more than a month to prepare and find the chemistry they had only in stretches this fall. It also would be nice to see offensive coordinator Dan Roushar open up the playbook a bit as the Spartans try to attack a TCU defense more vulnerable to the pass (52nd nationally) than the run (10th nationally). The Spartans really need more of a balanced offense to win this game.
2. Contain Boykin: This isn't a great TCU offense -- 60th in points per game and 63rd in yards per game -- but the Spartans have to pay close attention to quarterback Trevone Boykin. The freshman had some predictable ups and downs after taking over for Casey Pachall in early October, but he had some very big performances (Baylor, Texas Tech) and limited mistakes after his first three starts. Michigan State can't let Boykin get comfortable and needs a strong performance from its defensive front seven. Junior end William Gholston had a breakout game in last year's bowl win over Georgia (five tackles for loss, two sacks). After a somewhat disappointing season, can Gholston replicate his last postseason performance?
3. Special attention: The kicking game likely looms large in a game featuring two strong defenses and two inconsistent offenses. Michigan State likely has to win on special teams to emerge from the desert with a victory. Place-kicker Dan Conroy converted a Big Ten-leading 22 field goals this season, but he also had more misses (nine) and more attempts (31) than any other kicker in the league. Several of those misses really stung in close losses, so the Spartans likely need a flawless performance from Conroy against TCU. Michigan State also must limit Skye Dawson, who ranks 27th nationally in punt returns (10 yards per return) and 61st in kick returns (22.5 ypr) but has some trouble fielding kicks cleanly.
WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell. The 6-foot-2, 244-pound junior has carried the Spartans offense at times this season. He ranks third in the country in average yards per game and has three 200-yard rushing games this season. As you'd expect for a guy his size, he's a work horse -- he's run the ball 350 times already, averaging more than 29 carries per game to lead the nation in that stat. He's also surprisingly nimble, with a signature move called the Le'Veon Leap, where he hurdles over unsuspecting defenders. Michigan State's offense needs to establish Bell in order to move the ball, but TCU ranked 10th nationally against the run while averaging only 104 yards per game on the ground. Yet the Horned Frogs haven't seen a back quite like Bell, because there aren't many like him. This could be his final college game, as he is expected to enter the 2013 NFL draft. Will he go out with a bang?
WHAT TO WATCH: The defenses. Both programs are defense-first teams with some great minds in charge. Gary Patterson is known for his fast, athletic defenses, while the Mark Dantonio-Pat Narduzzi combination has produced some elite defensive units in East Lansing. Michigan State ranked No. 4 in total defense this season, while TCU was No. 18. Stars abound on each side. Linebackers Max Bullough, defensive end William Gholston and cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Johnny Adams lead the way for the Spartans. Adams, however, is likely out for the game because of a turf toe injury, which would be a huge loss for Michigan State. Big 12 defensive player of the year Devonte Fields, linebacker Kenny Cain and all-America cornerback Jason Verrett are among the standouts for the Horned Frogs. TCU's defensive numbers would probably be even better if it didn't play in the wide-open Big 12, while Michigan State probably benefited some from playing in the more button-down Big Ten. Which defense is better? A more important question might be, can either offense get anything going?
WHY TO WATCH: Neither team lived up to expectations this year, as Michigan State was picked by many to win the Big Ten and TCU had its troubles during its first go-round in the Big 12. Both were also curiously bad at home. But both the Spartans and the Horned Frogs have experienced recent success and could be very good in 2013. Michigan State will return the core of its offense and has replacements ready for its departing defensive stars. Nearly 70 percent of the players who saw action for TCU this year were freshmen or sophomores. A bowl game win could provide momentum to the victor. And you are guaranteed to see some future pros on the field, especially on defense.
PREDICTION: Michigan State has come up short in key games all year long, but the Spartans have plenty of talent. The extra 15 bowl practices must have helped quarterback Andrew Maxwell and the team's young receivers develop better timing and chemistry. TCU has an excellent defense but will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Maxwell has a nice game to build optimism for 2013, and Michigan State makes a key stop late to win a close one ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16
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