Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
Just about everything was great about the Spartans' season, except for the ending.
The 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game put a damper on what was one of the best seasons in school history. Instead of going to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years, Michigan State again got shut out of the BCS despite raising a Big Ten banner (this time, for the Legends Division crown) for the second straight year. Worse, hated rival Michigan is going to the Allstate Sugar Bowl even though the Spartans beat the Wolverines by two touchdowns and finished a game ahead of them in the division standings.
Hey, life's not fair. But that shouldn't take away from what Mark Dantonio and his team accomplished in 2011. The Spartans' second consecutive 10-win season was a first in school history. Many counted Michigan State out this year because of a brutal road slate and a schedule that included games at Ohio State, vs. Michigan and Wisconsin and at Nebraska in October alone. The team won the first three of those before getting blown out at Nebraska, when it was likely mentally and physically drained from the previous three weeks. That would be the only loss in Big Ten regular-season play.
The defense finished fifth nationally in yards allowed, embracing coordinator Pat Narduzzi's aggressive style by punishing opposing quarterbacks. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy was the star up front at defensive tackle, but there wasn't a weak link on that side of the ball. On offense, the Spartans had to replace three linemen from last year and dealt with some injuries in that unit early in the year. Predictably, it took a while for everything to jell. But the O-line improved rapidly, and the offense was humming as well as anyone's down the stretch. Michigan State averaged 38.6 points in its final five games, with quarterback Kirk Cousins hitting his targets, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin giving defenses fits and Le'Veon Bell emerging as a hard-charging, go-to running back.
In any other year, the regular-season results would have been enough to send the Spartans to Pasadena. They came up just short in a rematch with Wisconsin. But this program proved that it's ready to compete for the league title every year.
Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. Receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin were fantastic, but Cousins was the leader who made everything go. The fifth-year senior completed better than 67 percent of his passes in the final five games, with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He finished as the Big Ten's top passer with a career-best 3,016 yards. He was in line to be the Big Ten title game MVP had Michigan State won, but a running-into-the-punter penalty prevented him and the offense from getting the ball back for one last drive.
Defensive MVP: Jerel Worthy. There were many noteworthy performances on the Michigan State defense, including defensive end Will Gholston, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullogh, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Trenton Robinson, among others. But Worthy was the catalyst, disrupting things in the middle of the line of scrimmage. He was also the team's fiery, emotional spark plug.
Turning point: Wisconsin's Hail Mary-esque, 36-yard completion on fourth-and-6 late in the Big Ten title game. That allowed the Badgers to go in for the game-winning score, and the Rose Bowl bid that seemed so close started to slip away.
What's next: An Outback Bowl matchup against SEC East champ Georgia in what should be a competitive game. The Spartans will look to win their first bowl game under Dantonio, an important next step. Losing Cousins, Cunningham, Martin, lineman Joel Foreman, Robinson and likely Worthy (if he goes pro) will create some major holes. Narduzzi also is likely to get a head coaching gig. But the majority of the roster returns, meaning the Spartans should be a factor again in the 2012 league race.