This might be hard to believe, but heading into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Le’Veon Bell was Michigan State’s leading passer.
Bell, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, completed his first collegiate pass to fullback TyQuan Hammock for 29 yards. Hammock had been a middle linebacker until this game, but the Spartans were just sort of making things up as they went along in this one.
State would come back from a 13-0 deficit for a 17-16 win over TCU, capped by a 47-yard field goal with 1:01 remaining by Dan Conroy — who set a school single-season record with his 23rd field goal. Conroy was lifted like a trophy by offensive tackle Skyler Burkland.
But the final score wasn’t the biggest thing to come out of Saturday night’s victory. A full-blown quarterback controversy got whipped up in Tempe, Ariz.
Andrew Maxwell, the starter all season as a junior, passed for just 28 yards in the first half and never completed a pass after half time.
Connor Cook, a redshirt freshman from Hinckley, Ohio, and Walsh Jesuit High School, got a series in the first half and the MSU sports information staff quickly informed reporters that this was by design. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio wanted to get his backup some playing time and experience.
But when Cook got the last drive of the third quarter, engineering a 90-yard scoring drive, and then got the first series of the fourth quarter … well, you could see what was happening.
Dantonio was trying to decide on his quarterback.
With 2:42 remaining in the game and Maxwell firing up his teammates in a huddle straddling the sideline, Dantonio made his choice. Maxwell was tugged back and Cook sent out to begin the game-deciding drive at the MSU 25-yard line.
Cook quickly hit a 12-yard pass to Bell, who rushed for 145 yards to finish his season with 1,793 yards. Then he connected with tight end Dion Sims for 14 yards. Cook got Conroy into field-goal range, and Conroy nailed his kick to avert a losing season by finishing at 7-6.
Dantonio spoke amid the celebration to a sideline reporter, who asked about playing a quarterback who had just five pass completions in six attempts all season.
“You’ve got to go with the hot guy,” Dantonio said.
Later, on his WJR-AM postgame show with host Will Tieman, Dantonio said, “It doesn’t mean that Andrew Maxwell isn’t our quarterback.”
Say what you want, the question as to whether Maxwell or Cook will start next year will be debated from now until the Aug. 31 season opener with Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium.
On Saturday, Cook completed 4 of 11 passes for 47 yards and had a 15-yard touchdown pass to freshman Aaron Burbridge to cap the 90-yard drive that was highlighted by Bell’s pass to Hammock. Cook also scrambled for 11 yards on a third-and-7 play to jump start the drive that was the longest of the season and in MSU bowl history.
“He was accurate and decisive,” Spartans offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said of Cook on WJR-AM.
“Connor Cook had a great drive,” Dantonio said on his radio show. “We wanted to play Connor. Maxwell’s going to be a senior next year.”
Maxwell, who was 6-for-15 for 28 yards and also lost 19 yards on the ground for nine yards of total offense, was on the field for one touchdown. But that one was a gift. RJ Williamson recovered a fumbled punt at the TCU 4-yard line to set up a touchdown run by Bell from that spot.
There was a drive late in the second half that best illustrated Maxwell’s struggles. It began with Maxwell under throwing tight end Dion Sims and putting the ball right in the hands of TCU cornerback Jason Verrett. It was a pick-six waiting to happen, but Verrett dropped it.
Then Maxwell missed Sims again and Kenny Cain nearly picked that one off.
However, on third down, Maxwell zipped a 12-yard pass over the middle to Tony Lippett.
It was one small step forward, and a big one backward after that. Bell stepped back after a handoff and looked downfield to throw. But, he quickly opted to throw it backward to Maxwell, who came within an eyelash of a huge loss. Maxwell was barely able to throw away the ball.
On third-and-5, Maxwell completed a 4-yard pass to Sims.
Dantonio had little choice but to give Cook a shot, and the redshirt freshman’s numbers were hardly fantastic. But he did the one thing that mattered most — he put points on the scoreboard. Cook had zip on his throws, played confidently and stepped up to save the game.
Most importantly, he is more mobile than Maxwell, and on a team with a mediocre offensive line, that was so vitally important.
State won bowl games in back-to-back seasons for only the second time in school history — matching the Aloha Bowl win in 1989 and Sun Bowl win of 1990 by following up on the Outback Bowl win last season.
In a season in which five losses came by a combined 13 points, the Spartans avoided another heartbreaker.
“It was the season that could’ve been,” Dantonio said on WJR-AM. “We could’ve won 10 or 11 games, but you take it the way it comes.”