EAST LANSING, Mich. — There are plenty of statistics and benchmarks that can be used to evaluate quarterbacks.
But the most telling thing about a quarterback is his ability to engineer winning touchdown drives in the waning minutes of games. It’s what Joe Montana did and Tom Brady does. At Michigan State, it’s what Kirk Cousins did the last three seasons.
On Saturday, in a hostile environment at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, Andrew Maxwell finally did it.
The Spartans had scored only three points in the game’s first 59 minutes. But Maxwell marched them 75 yards in 12 plays and slipped a five-yard shovel pass to tailback Le’Veon Bell for the game-tying touchdown with 1:08 to play in regulation.
Then, on a third-and-eight play in overtime, Maxwell zipped a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Fowler to beat the Badgers.
Might it have been Maxwell’s defining moment?
That was the question put to State coach Mark Dantonio on Tuesday. He tends to downplay such questions, preferring to keep his players on even keels.
Not this time. He jumped on that point like a bass to a shiny lure.
“I think it can (be),” Dantonio said of the defining moment possibility. “I think we’re going to find out the rest of the season as we go through this.
“But to do it at the end of the game like that, to do it on his arm all the way down the field, that’s what was impressive to me. How he handled it, managed the game, how he handled himself — those were the impressive things to me.
“The confidence that that should bring (him) should be huge.”
Maxwell was 8-of-9 for 69 yards on that drive. Dantonio sounded as if he couldn’t wait to see his fourth-year junior put in such a spot again. That opportunity could come Saturday, when No. 21 Nebraska visits Spartan Stadium.
Dantonio recalled a game in 2009 when Cousins, who set school records with 9,131 yards and 66 touchdowns passing, had a similar epiphany moment on a drive against Notre Dame.
“The same thing happened to Kirk at that point in time,” Dantonio added. “He sort of came of age
“Because of that I think he flourished from that point on.”
When the residual effects of his game-deciding drive were mentioned, Maxwell smiled and said, “It doesn’t hurt the confidence — that’s for sure.”
He then quickly credited Fowler with “making a great catch” and his blockers for their protection. That’s what a leader does, and the tri-captain is a pretty good one.
Maxwell, coming off that key drive, checked into the game-winning OT pass on third down.
“When we get that (defensive) look, that’s the play we want to go into,” he said. “I think (Fowler) kind of expected that check, too. He’s a guy who is smart, is a heady football player. He felt the look.
“I’m sure he was thinking in his head, ‘Maybe a check is coming here.’ Just to know he’s going to be on the same page as me gave me confidence to make the check.”
Maxwell practices and studies hard, but there is only one way to prepare for leading a touchdown drive with the game on the line.
“Those are things you can’t simulate in practice,” he said. “Having been through our fair share of those with as many games as we’ve had come down to the wire, that does a lot for a quarterback and an offense and a football team.”
Maxwell has led three fourth-quarter comebacks for victories. State has played two overtime games and gone 2-3 in five Big Ten games, each decided by four points or fewer.
Success under pressure hinges on slowing down the game, and for a quarterback that means going through the “progressions” of receivers running their routes and selecting the right target.
“When the bullets are flying around you, things get hectic,” Maxwell said. “Can you stay true to those reads or do you go to the quickest (one), which I’m guilty of doing? I think I’ve been going through my complete read and finding the guy that’s open.
“There is a fine line to going through your reads quickly, not getting stuck, but also staying true to them. I know there were one or two plays where I went too quickly and I passed over an open guy.”
Maxwell, listed among the top 10 “under-the-radar” quarterbacks by The Sporting News, is beginning to show up on the radar. He ranks second in the Big Ten with 223.9 yards passing per game, with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
He’s on pace to pass for 2,911 yards should State win one more game and play in a bowl, and that would surpass Cousins’ total of 2,680 as a first-year starter in 2009.
However, wins mean more than yards, and first-year starters, no matter how talented, often have trouble producing them. State was 6-7 with Cousins starting for the first time three years ago.
The difference between winning and losing often is the result of the final possession.
Chuck Long, a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1985 as the Iowa quarterback, watched Maxwell’s game-tying touchdown drive Tuesday night during a Big Ten Network segment and smiled.
“It is the very best thing you could have for your quarterback,” Long said. “Now, he has that fourth-quarter confidence.”