Lady Luck finally smiled on Michigan State in the 24th Cactus Bowl. After enduring five losses by a total of 13 points during the regular season against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, the Spartans turned the table on TCU to claim a narrow 17-16 victory.
A defensive struggle from the outset, the Spartans were limited to 227 total yards (123 rushing, 104 passing) by a young but staunch Horned Frog defense. Michigan State punted on its seven first-half possessions and gained only 76 total yards (42 rushing, 34 passing) by halftime. MSU’s quarterbacks completed just 10 passes overall and the Spartans became the first FBS school to win a game in 2012 after punting 11 or more times.
Yet a trick play, a frequent ploy of MSU head coach Mark Dantonio, and a muffed TCU punt return midway through the fourth quarter turned the tide for the Spartans.
While their defense dominated, the Horned Frogs seized a 13-0 halftime lead after tailback Matthew Tucker capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and place kicker Jaden Oberkrom drilled second-quarter field goals from 47 and 31 yards.
Michigan State climbed into contention midway through the third quarter. After punting for an eighth consecutive time to open the second half, the Spartans turned to redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook. He marched MSU 90 yards in 14 plays for its first touchdown, a 15-yard pass from Cook to freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge three plays after Dantonio’s trickery. It was Cook’s first career touchdown pass.
Sitting third-and-two at the TCU 45-yard line, punishing MSU tailback Le’Veon Bell, the national leader in rushing attempts, turned passer on an apparent sweep out of the “Wildcat” formation. He lofted a 29-yard pass completion — a “duck” as Dantonio later would describe the wobbly throw — to fullback TyQuan Hammock who was tackled at the Frogs’ 16-yard line.
It was Michigan State’s longest drive of the season and the longest in its bowl history.
But TCU still led 13-7.
The teams traded four more punts into the fourth quarter. TCU’s Skye Dawson muffed the game-turning fourth boot at the Frogs’ four-yard line with 7:13 to play. The Spartans recovered and two plays later, Bell raced around left end for a touchdown and a 14-13 MSU lead.
An exchange of two more punts led to a dramatic finish.
Undaunted TCU drove 28 yards in six plays, highlighted by a 27-yard pass between two redshirt freshmen — quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver LaDarius Brown — to regain the lead 16-14 on Oberkrom’s gutty, career-long, 53-yard field goal, longest in Cactus Bowl history, with only 2:42 to play.
MSU reinserted Cook for its last-gasp possession that began at the Spartans’ 25-yard line. Cook responded, guiding the Spartans 45 yards in eight plays. Perched at TCU’s 30-yard line with 1:06 remaining, MSU called on place kicker Dan Conroy, who calmly responded to Oberkrom’s clutch field goal with one of his own, a 47-yarder, that provided Michigan State its final 17-16 margin of victory.
Turnabout was fair play in the second half when MSU’s sturdy defense, which led the Big Ten Conference in seven categories, held TCU to only 84 total yards (65 passing, 19 rushing).
TCU wide receiver Josh Boyce caught five passes to increase his season total to 66, a Horned Frog single-season record.
The Frogs completed their first season as a member of the Big 12 Conference with their eighth straight bowl appearance in their eighth consecutive winning season.
The Spartans made a school-record sixth consecutive bowl appearance in their eighth bowl berth since 2001.