Michigan State’s two losses came to teams participating in the College Football Playoff. It looked like the Spartans were set to lose their third to a team that felt it was unfairly left out. Baylor used a resourceful and creative attack under new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to control the early part of the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. But the Spartans stormed back to shock the Bears 42-41 in AT&T Stadium.
The Spartans, who trailed 41-21 at the end of the third quarter, were in desperate need of a spark as Baylor looked to run out the clock in the waning minutes of the fourth. Michigan State had cut the deficit to 41-35, but the Bears had possession deep in Spartans’ territory. Then kicker Chris Callahan’s 43-yard attempt was blocked -- and Callahan was promptly flattened -- as Michigan State regained the ball with one final chance to win.
Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense marched to the red zone, with Cook completing a huge fourth-down pass to Tony Lippett with just over 30 seconds to play. Then Cook found receiver Keith Mumphrey in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining to give Sparty its first lead since 14-7 with 5:06 left in the first quarter.
Here are three thoughts from Michigan State’s stunning Cotton Bowl win:
1. Let’s Cook
When Cook threw a baffling interception with Michigan State down 41-28, he was visibly upset. He knew he had made the wrong decision, and even though Baylor should've probably been flagged for holding, there was no excuse for what he did.
A lot of players would’ve let the mistake haunt them. Cook isn’t a lot of players.
“Connor did a great job,” coach Mark Dantonio said in his postgame interview with ESPN. “When things are on edge he can make plays, and that’s what he did.”
Cook finished 24-of-42 for 314 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. He was at his best when his team needed him the most, engineering three fourth-quarter scoring drives.
2. Like father, like son
With Philip Montgomery off to coach Tulsa, Briles could’ve gone any number of directions to fill Baylor’s offensive coordinator position. Instead he stayed close to home, promoting his son, Kendal, from within. The decision might have seemed like a big jump mixed with a dash of nepotism, but it was far from it. The younger Briles, who spent the past few years serving as the receivers coach and passing game coordinator (and offensive recruiting coordinator), has a complete grasp of the offense and is one of the brightest young minds in the game.
Briles, 32, dazzled with his play-calling, with a flourish that included a double pass for a score as well as a touchdown strike to 390-pound guard LaQuan McGowan. Baylor’s offense is like a Formula One car: Its speed and precision make it easy to forget there are so many parts moving under the hood.
"There's a calm confidence that is father/son like,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said in a piece from Fox Sports Southwest’s David Ubben. “Not braggart or brash, just a confidence that has been passed down. He’ll be a head coach. This is step No. 2 for him."
Kendal seems fully capable of making Baylor’s offense his own. It doesn’t hurt that he has a wealth of talent, from receiver KD Cannon (eight catches, 197 yards, two touchdowns) to Corey Coleman (seven catches, 150 yards, one score) to tailback Shock Linwood. Even with the departures of Antwan Goodley and Bryce Petty, who threw for 550 yards with three touchdowns in his final college game, Baylor is in great shape moving forward.
3. Remembering Jeremy Langford
In a year in which every Big Ten team seemed to have a great tailback, Langford slipped through the cracks a bit. That was unfair to Langford given the kind of runner he has been for the better part of two years, and to the Michigan State offense as a whole, which averaged 43.1 points in the regular season.
Langford took a first-quarter carry 65 yards to the one-yard line and scored a few plays later to put Michigan State up 7-0. He rushed for more than 100 yards in the first half alone, finishing with 27 carries for 162 yards and three touchdowns.
The Michigan State back went over 100 yards in his final nine games and had at least one touchdown in all but two outings this fall (a 45-7 win over Jacksonville State on Aug. 29 and a 45-31 win over Purdue on Oct. 11). He showed the same type of consistency in 2013, rushing for at least 100 yards in Sparty’s final eight regular-season games.
The senior will probably be missed more than anyone realizes. Keep an eye on Langford at the next level.