ARLINGTON, Texas -- Down 20 in the fourth quarter, facing the nation’s top-scoring offense, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had one thought coursing through his mind -- avoid taking the knockout punch.
Baylor had the Spartans on the ropes for much of Thursday's Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
But Michigan State dodged a couple of potential uppercuts, then punched its way back to stun the Bears 42-41.
“We didn’t panic,” Dantonio said. “We regrouped, and kept playing.”
It looked as if the Spartans were headed to the mat for good to begin the fourth quarter, as the Bears were about to open a 24-point lead. But Chris Callahan's 46-yard field goal attempt bounced off the right upright.
For the first time all half, Michigan State had a little momentum. Soon, a little would become a lot.
On the next play, quarterback Connor Cook found Keith Mumphery bounding open past the Baylor secondary for a 50-yard gain. Four snaps later, the Spartans were in the end zone. And more importantly, they had the belief that they could rally.
“When you’re down like that against a potent offense that’s pretty much scoring at will, it doesn’t look too good,” Cook said. “But I never lost belief.”
That belief would be tested.
After getting burned with trick plays all game, Dantonio returned the favor with an onside kick that Michigan State’s Jermaine Edmondson dove to recover. But instead of capitalizing, Cook tossed an ill-advised interception right to Baylor linebacker Taylor Young, who took the pick to the end zone. The touchdown was nullified by Andrew Billings' block in the back penalty, though.
Baylor’s ensuing drive stalled out, ending in a turnover on downs that gave Michigan State the ball back in decent field position.
Knockout averted again.
“I said, 'This is about to be one hell of a "Madden" game,'" receiver/cornerback Tony Lippett said. “We knew we had to keep scoring, get the crowd going and the momentum going our way.”
The Spartans would soon do just that.
Cook completed a pair of passes to push the Spartans back into Baylor territory. Tailback Jeremy Langford then finished off the drive with a touchdown plunge, pulling Michigan State to within 41-35.
“I knew our offense could score, I knew we could move the football,” Dantonio said. “I knew we would have a chance if we could just slow them down a little bit, and we did.”
With just under five minutes to go, and unable to run the ball against Michigan State’s impenetrable front, the Bears opted to try to win the game by clinching it with another score. Behind quarterback Bryce Petty, who threw for a Cotton Bowl-record 550 yards, Baylor zipped back down the field. The Bears appeared to all but seal the win when Petty hit Corey Coleman with a slant pass to the Michigan State 1-yard line. But Coleman grabbed Lippett’s face mask as he tried to fight off the tackle.
The penalty killed Baylor’s momentum, leaving the Bears with another long 43-yard field goal attempt to ice the game. Only this one never made it to the upright.
Instead, Marcus Rush blocked the kick, R.J. Williamson scooped up the loose ball and Lippett leveled Callahan to give the Spartans possession near midfield.
Final knockout averted.
“You hate to 'if' it,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “But if you don't hit the upright, if you don't get a field goal blocked, if you don't have an offensive face mask penalty, we'd feel a lot better now. Those are points off the board in the fourth quarter.”
While Baylor squandered its fourth-quarter opportunities, Michigan State did not.
Displaying the poise and short memory that’s begun to define his career, Cook delivered a dart to Lippett to convert a fourth-and-10. Then on third-and-goal, Cook found Mumphery open in the back of the end zone with 17 seconds remaining for the game-winning touchdown.
“Connor, he's always resilient,” Dantonio said. “He can take a bad play and the next play he's going to play through it. And that is truly the key of a great quarterback.
“Down the stretch, our quarterback played very, very well and made the plays at the end of the game that we had to make.”
The finish left the Bears stunned both on the field and in the postgame locker room. Baylor was on the cusp of a special season, narrowly getting passed over by Ohio State for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff. The Bears seemed to be on their way to sending a message to the committee, the way rival TCU had against Ole Miss the day before.
Instead, ironically, they fell to Michigan State in the same manner they knocked off the Horned Frogs -- on a rally from a three-touchdown fourth-quarter deficit.
“We let some things get away from us,” Briles said. “It's, quite honestly, an embarrassment to me as a coach.”
While Briles and the Bears were left reeling, Dantonio was buoyed. The Spartans should finish in the top 10 for the second consecutive season. And with several starters coming back, including Cook, Michigan State could be a factor in the playoff next season.
“We'll get a great lift from this,” Dantonio said. “It sends us into 2015 swinging up.”
The Spartans never stopped swinging. Baylor never landed the knockout, leaving the Bears wondering what could have been while the Spartans dream of what they could become.