Michigan State ends season with another close one
Michigan State finished one game over .500 after winning its final game by one point.
It was an appropriate ending to a season full of close victories and excruciating defeats.
The Spartans played nine games decided by four points or fewer, including their first seven in Big Ten play. They ended on a high note Saturday night with a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the offseason will bring plenty of questions for a team that just a few months ago was hoping to make a run at a conference title.
''We stayed composed all the way through to the end,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''We won against Wisconsin very close. We won against Boise (State) very close. So our guys have won. It's just that sometimes when you lose, it sort of gets magnified for all of us.''
After coming within an eyelash of the Rose Bowl the previous two seasons, Michigan State needed to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2012. Andrew Maxwell became the starter, but in the bowl he ended up splitting time with Connor Cook.
So that may be the first talking point after a 7-6 season. Maxwell has another year of eligibility, but it was Cook, a redshirt freshman, who directed the drive that led to the winning field goal Saturday.
''I don't want to slight anybody, say, `This guy is the new quarterback.' There's a lot of colleges across the country that play two quarterbacks or play guys situationally,'' Dantonio said. ''We just felt like we wanted to play a redshirt freshman and get him some reps in a bowl game. He had enough time to prepare and we wanted to see what he could do. He did well so we used him the second half, too.''
With the passing game in flux, the Spartans relied heavily on running back Le'Veon Bell. He ended up with 1,793 yards on a whopping 382 carries.
Now, Michigan State waits for Bell to announce whether he'll turn pro or come back for his senior year.
''I want to make sure I do things the right way, talk to my family about it, the players and coaches about it,'' Bell said. ''Make sure I get output from everybody and see what everybody thinks.''
The Spartans were hoping they could grind their way to a league championship behind Bell and a stout defense. The result was an unusual number of games that came down to the final minutes.
A 17-13 victory over Boise State in the opener was a nice start, but Michigan State lost 17-16 at home to Ohio State in its first Big Ten game.
After a four-point victory over Indiana, the Spartans lost to Iowa 19-16 in double-overtime. The following week, Michigan State's four-game winning streak over rival Michigan was snapped on a last-second field goal.
In November, Nebraska dealt Michigan State a crushing loss on a touchdown with 6 seconds remaining.
But the bowl at least enabled the Spartans to finish on a high note. Michigan State trailed 13-0 after a listless first half, but Cook threw a touchdown pass in the third quarter and Bell ran for a score in the fourth.
A long field goal put the Horned Frogs up 16-14, but there was enough time for Cook and the Spartans to win their final close game of the year.
''We're a team that we can lose to Iowa in the fourth quarter and bounce back the next week and play the whole four quarters. ... That's a testament to the guys we've got here, the leadership inside the locker room, all the way on up,'' linebacker Max Bullough said. ''There's no doubt in my mind, even with how many losses we've had this year, we're going to come out on top. That's the kind of confidence we have in each other and the kind of confidence I have in my teammates.''