It was marked by the Spartans beating up on teams they should have beaten up on – wins that were marked as wins heading into the season. It also was marked by a pair of losses in the games that always were destined to define the regular season.
It had 10 very apparent success and two very evident failures, but still the season lacked a sense of definition. How does one quantify the success of a team that might be more defined by its failures than its successes?
For a while Thursday, it appeared the season was going to end for Michigan State with another “signature loss” and without a signature win. A third very evident failure started to take shape in the second and third quarters. The Spartans faced a third juggernaut offense and were seeing its vaunted defense shredded by the Baylor air attack led by Bryce Petty.
But from a sense of belief or just sheer willpower and guts, the Spartans flipped the script.
They answered the call to define their season with a positive instead of a negative. In its final quarter of football in the 2014 season, the Spartans salvaged a season from being defined by shortcomings and instead defined it by overcoming.
Facing a 20-point deficit and odds stacked against it, Connor Cook and Co. rallied in a stirring offensive bounce back. None was more of a bounce back than Cook, who – just as he did after a bad pick-six in last year’s Rose Bowl – rebounded from a pair of bad interceptions to throw two touchdowns in the final frame and almost rush for another.
It was representative of the entire season for the Spartans – and the way the program has been built under Mark Dantonio. Gone are the days of Spartan teams that collapse following an early season loss. The falling apart has been replaced by rallying together.
After a loss in Week 2 at Oregon, the Spartans rattled off six straight wins with just one coming by less than 14 points and an average margin of victory of more than 30 points per game.
Again after a loss to Ohio State in early November, the Spartans rebounded with three straight wins – and two road wins – to close the regular season. This time, the margin of victory fell just short of 30 points per game.
But through three quarters of the final game of the year, the Spartans were well on their way to being handed their worst defeat of the season.
Instead, it became perhaps the most improbable win of Dantonio’s tenure and will take a place among the craziest bowl comebacks in history.
The Spartans took what was set to define a season that was still in question heading into the game and stamped a definition on it. With Cook’s touchdown pass to Price, fourth-down conversion to Tony Lippett on the final drive and his touchdown pass to Keith Mumphery with 17 seconds left, it changed.
It changed with the dialed up pressure in the second half that suffocated Petty as it had failed to do in the first half. It flipped with Marcus Rush bursting through the Baylor offensive line to block a late field goal and set up the unlikely victory.
It changed as Jermaine Edmondson recovered an onside kick and Mumphery peppered the fourth quarter with big plays. It altered with R.J. Williamson coming up for a big hit to keep the final field-goal attempt from Baylor kicker Chris Callahan as long as it was and when he scooped up the blocked field goal.
It changed as the defense responded after being shredded for much of the game. It hung on late and made just enough plays and the necessary few stops to keep the Spartans in a position to win in a show of complete resiliency.
It was a scattered series of plays that marked an unlikely turning of the tide, but one that in turn defined a season that before had been as expected but lacking a true defining moment.
An 11-win season – the fourth in five years – with a trophy in the case is a much different season than a 10-win season with nothing in the history books to mark a team’s achievements other than a won-loss record.
On Thursday, it claimed the signature win it needed in the same fashion it had used to get to 10 wins and set up the chance to success. It no longer could be a season defined by a pair of losses to teams playing for a national championship next weekend.
After all, no team wants to be defined by its shortcomings more than its achievements. The Spartans made sure that did not happen with its win in the Cotton Bowl.
And now, with the win in hand, this season will be defined by a team that got it done and left with the program’s third win against a Top 5 team in the past 13 months.
That is a successful season and the mark of a great team.