TEMPE, Ariz. – Michigan State left the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl late Saturday night with two questions:
Did they lose running back LeVeon Bell?
Did they gain a quarterback?
Bell, a junior whose only decision about the NFL is when, not if, had 145 yards rushing and scored a touchdown as the Spartans reversed a season-long trend by finishing on the right end of a close game in a 17-16 win over TCU in the inaugural Buffalo Wild Wings game at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Spartans (7-6) had lost five games by a total of 13 points this season, but this time they found a closer — several of them, really, in Bell, redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook and senior placekicker Dan Conroy.
Conroy put the finishing touch on the victory with a 47-yard field goal with 61 seconds remaining, reprising his role as the Spartans’ bowl savior — his 28-yard field goal beat Georgia 33-30 in the third overtime of the Outback Bowl after the 2011 season.
“He came up clutch for us,” Bell said.
But it was Bell and Cook who did the heavier lifting for a team that entered as a slight underdog, perhaps because of its difficulty in finishing. Bell, 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, got stronger as the game wore on as the massive Spartans’ offensive front wore TCU down. He had 38 yards on 11 carries in the first half before adding 55 yards on the ground in the third quarter and 52 more in the fourth.
That wasn’t all Bell did. After running out of the wildcat formation in the first half, he completed a 29-yard pass after taking a direct snap on a 90-yard third-quarter drive engineered by Cook that started the Spartans on the way back from a 13-0 deficit.
Bell finished the season with 1,783 yards rushing and, as prepared as he appeared, was predictably coy about his future immediately afterward.
“I’m not sure yet. I haven’t thought about it. We’ll talk to ‘Coach D’ (Mark Dantonio) and the rest of the coaches and see what happens,” Bell said.
If Bell chooses the NFL, it would not be a surprise. He does not have much left to prove in college, as much as the Spartans might want to argue the point.
At the same time, Dantonio may have found a new offensive cog in Cook, who had played in only two games and thrown all of six passes prior to Saturday night. All were caught, five by teammates and one by an opponent.
Cook, 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, showed a strong arm, at first glance stronger than junior starter Andrew Maxwell, and an ability to move around in the pocket to avoid trouble. Maxwell, in his first season as a starter after taking over for Kirk Cousins, was ineffective while playing most of the game, but Dantonio was cautious about reading too much into Cook’s first extended action, as impressive as it was.
“I don’t want to slight anybody, say this guy is the new quarterback. There are a lot of colleges across the country that play two quarterbacks or play guys situationally. We just felt like we wanted to play a redshirt freshman and get him some reps in a bowl game. He kept playing so well, we decided to go with him. He gave us some scrambling ability,” Dantonio said.
Cook played four series, one in the first half, and guided the Spartans to 10 points, including the final three. Their other touchdown, on Bell’s 4-yard run with 7:00 remaining, came after TCU muffed a punt and Michigan State recovered at the TCU 4-yard line.
Conroy’s winning kick capped a 45-yard drive that allowed Michigan State to overcome a 16-14 TCU lead built on freshman Jaden Oberkrom’s 53-yard field goal with 2:42 left, a kick that would have been good from another 10 yards. It was a good day for freshmen on both sides.
Cook completed 12- and 14-yard passes on the first two plays of the final drive, and the Spartans also benefited from a defensive holding penalty after a third-down incompletion.
“Connor is a good player. We all knew that,” Bell said. “He gets a lot of reps in practice. We know what Connor can do. He got thrown in the fire today. He executed. He did a great job. I was always confident.”
The Spartans had enough time to pace their winning drive because of Dantonio’s shrewd use of his timeouts. He called timeouts with 3:37 and 3:29 remaining during the TCU drive that led to Oberkrom’s 53-yard field goal, leaving plenty of time for Cook to operate.
“We remained resilient. Connor did a nice job on the 90-yard drive. He was effective. We ran the ball well. Kept bouncing back,” Dantonio said.
Bell summed up the roller-coaster as a testament to his team’s character.
“Every game means everything. If we lose one, we come back,” he said.
It remains to be seen if Bell will be back and, if he is, if he’ll be working behind Cook.