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No. 12 Spartans defeat No. 18 Georgia in 3OT at Outback Bowl

January 2, 2012
Head coach Mark Dantonio hugs senior safety Trenton Robinson at the post game celebration Monday afternoon after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs in triple overtime, 33-30, Monday afternoon at the Outback Bowl hosted in Raymond James Stadium at Tampa, Fla. adter winning the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in triple overtime, 33-30. Justin Wan/The State News
Head coach Mark Dantonio hugs senior safety Trenton Robinson at the post game celebration Monday afternoon after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs in triple overtime, 33-30, Monday afternoon at the Outback Bowl hosted in Raymond James Stadium at Tampa, Fla. adter winning the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in triple overtime, 33-30. Justin Wan/The State News —
Photo by Justin Wan | The State News

Tampa, Fla. — A 16-point deficit at the half, a tie game with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, a thrown interception in the first overtime and a blocked field goal for the win in the third overtime — it couldn’t have been any closer than that.

The No. 12 Spartans (11-3) did exactly what they’ve done all season: fought for every minute on the field and ultimately came away with a dramatic 33-30 triple overtime win over No. 18 Georgia (10-4) at the Outback Bowl on Monday.

Led by MSU’s consistently strong defense, the Spartans gave head coach Mark Dantonio his first bowl win at MSU and the program its first postseason win since 2001.

Having just scored a field goal on their third overtime possession, the Spartans had to make a stop on a fourth-and-14 Georgia field goal attempt and junior nose tackle Anthony Rashad White went up and blocked kicker Blair Walsh’s attempt to secure the MSU victory.

“We just beat one of the best teams in the country in a hostile crowd (and) could finish in the top 10 in the country — I think it’s a pretty special way to end it,” senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said.

Cousins finished his final game as a Spartan completing 27-of-50 passes for 300 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions and did his part protecting the ball on four rushes for 29 yards.

Senior wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol both came away with crucial plays in the thriller, finishing with seven receptions for 66 yards and four-for-53 yards and a touchdown, respectively.

Although MSU picked up its game in the second half, the first half left the team struggling to maintain possession. In a game dominated by defense — with Georgia and MSU’s defenses ranking third and fifth in the nation, respectively — the Spartans failed to score a point in the first half.

The Bulldogs first scored on an MSU possession starting on the team’s two-yard line when Cousins completed a pass to senior wide receiver Keshawn Martin, who then was tackled in the end zone by Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin for a safety and a 2-0 lead.

Although the Spartans repeatedly went three-and-out, their defense kept them in the game and prevented Georgia from scoring again until about three minutes were left in the half.

They made several key stops — including a fourth-and-one stop on MSU’s five-yard line by nose tackle Anthony Rashad White, a fumble by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray forced by junior linebacker Chris Norman and recovered by sophomore defensive end William Gholston and a couple sacks dished out by junior cornerback Johnny Adams and Gholston.

“Our defense has been doing a good job all season, so we’re confident with what we can do,” Norman said. “With that confidence comes a lot of composure, so when the game gets stressful, because we know what we can do, we just never lost control of it.”

The Bulldogs capitalized on their field position with Murray throwing an 80-yard rocket to wide receiver Tavarres King for the first touchdown of the game at 3:06 in the second quarter and Boykin returning a punt for a 92-yard touchdown about a minute later.

“They got on our guys, and they made plays,” Dantonio said. “They have an outstanding defense, and you see as the half and really as the game sort of presented itself why both defenses are ranked so high.”

When the Spartans opened the second half with another three-and-out drive, it looked like the halftime break did nothing for them. However, on Georgia’s subsequent possession, Murray threw an interception to sophomore cornerback Darqueze Dennard — which MSU eventually converted to a touchdown.

Sophomore running back Le’Veon Bell — who finished with 17 attempts for 48 yards and two touchdowns — got his first score of the game off an eight-yard carry at 7:52 in the third. MSU went for the two-point conversion, and Cousins hit wide-open senior tight end Brian Linthicum — who came away with seven catches for 115 yards.

“The game plan was basically confuse them, and my route was a corner route, but I actually cut it short once I saw that nobody was covering me,” Linthicum said. “They brought pressure, and when they bring pressure, they can’t account for everybody.”

A little less than four minutes later, MSU cut its deficit again when Dennard got his second pick of the game and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Unfortunately for the Spartans, their second attempt at a two-point conversion failed, leaving them trailing, 16-14.

After the Bulldogs kicked a 32-yard field goal, redshirt freshman running back Nick Hill started MSU’s drive with a 34-yard kick return, and Nichol finished it with a seven-yard touchdown catch. But again, the team’s two-point conversion failed and kept MSU with a 20-19 lead at 8:22 in the fourth.

Down 27-20 with less than two minutes left in the fourth, the Spartans used a 10-play, 85-yard drive with two Georgia penalties to tie the game. On a second down inches outside the end zone, Bell forced his way through the Bulldogs’ defense to score and leave just 14 seconds on the clock.

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“We talk about the inches all the time; you’ve got to be able to get those six inches,” Dantonio said. “We felt like we had enough time to run it one more time and if not, spike the ball and have another down to throw it in there.”

With MSU on offense first to start the first overtime, Cousins threw an interception on third-and-seven, but Georgia’s Walsh missed a 42-yard field goal to send the game to a second overtime. With Georgia starting, Walsh hit a 47-yard field goal to put his team up, 30-27, but junior kicker Dan Conroy made his 35-yard field goal to tie it up.

The Spartans started the third overtime with the ball, and Conroy pulled through again with a 28-yard field goal before White’s key block against Walsh.

“I felt like I got a hand on it, but (White) had the majority of it,” junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. “We just tried to do it together as a team and just wanted to go after it, and we did it.”

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