Saturday was eerily reminiscent of a crisp fall day from the 2010 football season, at least in terms of evaluating Michigan State Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins’ performance in a 24-3 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln.
Not only did the loss prove the then-ninth-ranked Spartans were still on the outside looking in at other programs in regards to joining college football’s elite, but it also served as a reminder that Cousins was in the same boat. He was a pre-season Davey O’Brien nominee, thought to be one of America’s top college quarterbacks. The loss against Nebraska proved otherwise, as have other road setbacks in the past.
A lot of Spartans football followers may disagree with that thought. Cousins is the career-leader in wins at MSU. He’s a three-year captain who’s beaten the University of Michigan each time he’s faced it (once on the road). Of course, when it’s all said and done, Cousins’ career will be talked about, mentioned with past legends’ tenures — and it should be.
Cousins is a consistent quarterback; consistent in both the good and bad. He’s not elite.
He’s consistently beat UM, and you won’t hear any MSU follower complain about that. But he’s also been consistently bad in big road games. And if you’re not of the Super Green Kool-Aid sipping variety of MSU fans, you would have a hard time arguing against that point.
His 4-for-12 start Saturday against the Huskers was similar to his lackluster showing last year in a 37-6 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. The circumstances were a different, but there were parallels nonetheless. The real difference was that MSU had an unblemished record it was trying to keep intact last season. While this year, the Spartans were more or less out to prove it could finally win a meaningful game away from Spartan Stadium.
In 2010, the Spartans marched into Iowa with emotional wins over Wisconsin and UM in their pockets — just like this season. Feeling confident after upsetting the Badgers at home, torching the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, the Spartans were thought to be in line for a win — and maybe an unbeaten season — against Iowa.
And many thought, despite what they might say now the damage is done, that the Spartans were in line for a win against quarterback Taylor Martinez and Nebraska.
But then it happened. Another “Iowa.”
You could sugarcoat it all you would like, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Stumbled, faltered… call it what you will. But Cousins fell flat on his face Saturday. Just as he did in 2010 against Iowa.
He was an embarrassing 11-for-27 passing which translated into a season-low 86 yards. His roughly 40 percent completion rate was a career-low.
While those numbers scream “bad road quarterback,” a review of the Iowa game from a year ago suggests something different. Cousins’ line didn’t appear nearly as mediocre as his line against Nebraska appeared. Despite the 37-6 loss, Cousins was 21-for-29 passing for 198 yards and a touchdown.
But he threw three interceptions in that game. He threw just one against Nebraska, but that number could have been tripled if Nebraska hauled in the few balls gift-wrapped and ripe for the picking from Cousins.
Sure, Cousins will get the Spartans a nice home win. He can throw a Hail Mary to win on Homecoming. He’ll go down in Spartans lore as one of the greatest signal-callers, and his triumphs over UM will be told of over and over for generations. Beating Penn State on the road in 2010 to win a share of a conference title for the first time since 1990; sure, that win will shine on his resume. He was dynamite, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes in the 28-22 win in Happy Valley.
While that was impressive, most notably because it was also MSU’s first win there in decades, it came against a down group of Nittany Lions — or some would argue.
MSU’s 10-7 win at The Horseshoe over Ohio State shouldn’t be discussed as a big road win for Cousins. Because it wasn’t. It was a huge road win for the defense, and defense only. Cousins threw a pair of interceptions in what should have been at least a four-score victory. The offense, namely Cousins, left enough points on the field against OSU to beat Nebraska.
On the road with Cousins… again.
2009 vs. Notre Dame: On his way to engineering one for the ages in the series between the Irish and Spartans, Cousins looked to be in cruise control late in the fourth quarter as the Spartans rolled with a head of steam toward the end zone.
And then he threw an interception on what would have likely been the game-winning drive. Notre Dame won 33-30.
2011 vs. Notre Dame: 329 yards would have been enough to win, right? No. Compounded by a poor defensive effort, Cousins’ gaudy passing numbers were false and hollow. The majority of those yards came between the 20-yard lines, on long, stalled drives that yielded no result.
2009 vs. Minnesota: Hardly a “big” road game in hindsight, but all conference road games are important. Cousins went 21-for-35, throwing for 236 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 42-34 loss to the Gophers.
MSU rebounded, as did Cousins, and became bowl eligible in 2009. A 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Valero Alamo Bowl is another game Cousins has taken his fair share of flack for. But, let’s be reminded the Spartans were more than short-staffed after suspensions from the Rather Hall incident decimated their roster. Tech was the heavy favorite, and Cousins completed 13 of 27 attempts for 220 yards with a touchdown and two picks.
If MSU wants to be considered elite, and not a pretender that hangs around until the last minute, Cousins has to win a big road game. There isn’t much time left, and the remaining schedule isn’t exactly filled with world-beaters. Beating Nebraska would have shed some of the doubts of Cousins’ composure on the road. Sure, it would be easy to hang on the fact MSU went 11-1 last year under Cousins, dismissing the notion that he’s not mediocre under the spotlight. But MSU was also throttled by Alabama, 49-7, in the Capital One Bowl under Cousins.
And that loss is a prime example of his futility when it matters most.