Tampa, Fla. — Kirk Cousins was the last player off the field at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night.
After celebrating No. 12 MSU’s 33-30 triple overtime win over No. 18 Georgia with his teammates and his family, Cousins took his time going back to the locker room, knowing it would be his last time on the field as a Spartan.
Cousins and the senior class — particularly wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, safety Trenton Robinson and left guard Joel Foreman — finished their careers at MSU with another first-time-since accomplishment.
The dramatic win at the Outback Bowl marks head coach Mark Dantonio’s first bowl win at MSU and the program’s first bowl win since 2001 — capping off the winningest senior class’ record at 37-16.
“It’s a special finish,” Cousins said as MSU’s winningest quarterback with a 27-12 record. “It’s hard to stack it up next to everything else. I think that each accomplishment was special in its own way, and it’s hard to compare them all, but this was the right way to go out.”
Whether it was as seniors or underclassmen, the senior class has demonstrated leadership on and off the field from the day they arrived at MSU and carried that character trait through the 60-plus minutes of its last game.
In a do-or-die situation with less than two minutes left in the game, Cousins relied on the talent and maturity of his senior wide receivers to quickly move up the field and send the game into overtime.
Starting on their own 15-yard line out of timeouts, Cousins first connected with Nichol for 15 yards and then on the next two plays, sent two bullets to Cunningham for a total of 29 yards into Georgia territory.
Taking a second-and-seven play from the Bulldogs’ 38 into his own hands, Cousins rushed for 20 yards — capitalizing on an opportunity which eluded him in the Big Ten Championship game. Hitting Nichol for another six and Martin for 11 — a play that initially was ruled a touchdown but overturned on the one-yard line — Cousins and the seniors dominated in a nearly flawless drive to tie the game at 27.
“That last drive, I was sitting on the sidelines not worried about this because great quarterbacks in two-minute situations are going to get their team down and score,” Robinson said. “That drive that offense had with no timeouts left — that was great.”
With MSU’s defense hanging on and offense making fast plays, Robinson said this was one of the greatest games he’s been a part of and a perfect parting gift for the seniors.
“I truly feel like a champion,” he said. “We might not have gotten the Big Ten Championship, but I feel like a champion. I feel so good, and I know our senior class feels good, and we can always say we were winners.”
With a smooth drive ending the fourth quarter — followed by three nail-biting overtimes — the Spartans were just doing what they’ve done all season. Against teams such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, MSU fell into early deficits and overcame the adversity to win them all.
Cunningham — who ended his career as MSU’s top receiver with 218 catches for 3,086 yards — said despite the rocky first half, the team’s confidence was high because it had come from behind before with the seniors leading the way.
“Being down in tough games before and playing against good teams like Georgia, we’ve faced adversity,” he said. “With our senior class, we’ve been facing it our whole career, so it’s nothing new to us. We just came out and were seizing out there and making plays like it was practice and trying to do what we had to do.”
Joining MSU’s roster as two- and three-star recruits, the senior class has proven itself and helped turn the football program around, with this year’s postseason marking the fifth consecutive bowl appearance.
With back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Big Ten Championship, four consecutive wins over the Wolverines, an inaugural conference championship game appearance and a couple miraculous victories from trick plays and a Hail Mary, the best senior class in MSU history will leave an unforgettable mark on the program.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity I was given at Michigan State and for the way we as a senior class have been able to build this program up from somewhat irrelevance to hopefully a top 10 ranking at the end of this season,” Cousins said.
“(With) back-to-back years with 11 wins, we’ve established this program among the nation’s elite, and I’m very proud of that.”
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