It wasn’t pretty, but Spartans’ rally saves the Big Ten from another New Year’s flop

Outback Bowl: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (Triple Overtime).
As the old saying goes: Most games are lost, not won. In the case of the Outback Bowl, it was lost at least four different times before the Spartans finally clinched a 16-point comeback with a blocked field goal on the final snap of the game — an appropriately ugly way to finish an ugly game.

Michigan State was hit for a safety on its first snap from scrimmage and proceeded to go three-and-out on seven consecutive possessions. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, the most efficient passer in the SEC, was picked off twice, one of them returned for a key Spartan touchdown in the third quarter. His counterpart, Kirk Cousins — repeatedly lauded by ABC's broadcast for his leadership, poise and other senior virtues — was picked off three times down the stretch, twice in the fourth quarter and once in overtime. Cousins' third pick looked like the dagger for MSU, until he was promptly bailed out by Georgia kicker Blair Walsh, who pushed a game-winning field goal attempt wide right.

The defense forced six turnovers, five sacks and 15 punts. Six overtime possessions produced a grand total of nine points. Both offenses tried repeatedly to give the game away.

But it was the Spartans' special teams that finally took it by blocking Walsh's attempt at a tying field goal in the third OT, thus vanquishing the monkey on the Big Ten's back in January bowl games. Last year, commissioner Jim Delany was forced to concede defeat in the Jan. 1 conference wars after his league turned in a wretched 0-5 mark on New Year's Day, including three losses at the hands of the SEC and another in the Rose Bowl. The one big game the conference did win, Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, was later vacated along with the rest of the Buckeyes' 2010 season as penance for playing ineligible players.

Today, the Big Ten began 0-3, suffering early losses in the TicketCity Bowl (Houston over Penn State), Gator Bowl (Florida over Ohio State) and Capital One Bowl (South Carolina over Nebraska). With a Spartan loss to Georgia, the only thing standing between the Big Ten and another 0-for-New Year's start would have been Wisconsin, a 6-point underdog against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. As the Spartans wheezed their way into the locker room down 16-0 at the half, owners of two first downs in the first two quarters, the shutout looked inevitable.{YSP:MORE}

The fact that it wasn't is a testament first to the MSU defense, which created the turnovers that turned the momentum in the third quarter and got the Bulldogs off the field in the fourth quarter and overtime. It's also a tribute to Cousins, who interspersed crippling turnovers with a pair of legitimately clutch touchdown drives in the final quarter, the first covering 59 yards to put the Spartans in front 20-19 with a little over eight minutes to play, the second a 10-play, 85-yard march to tie the game with the clock ticking under 20 seconds.

It's not going up there with the heroics of John Elway or Drew Brees. In fact, if not for the resilience of the defense and the erratic leg of Blair Walsh, Cousins had multiple opportunities to end his career as the goat. Instead, he's the guy who did just enough to get his team back in the game while making one less terrible mistake than the other guys. At this point, the rest of the conference will take it.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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