SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The numbers were easily the best of Kirk Cousins' young career, but his feelings after the game were undoubtedly the worst.
Cousins, Michigan State's rising star of a sophomore quarterback, led the Spartans back from a 26-17 deficit to take a 30-26 fourth-quarter lead. But his bid to bring Michigan State back again, when down 33-30 in the final two minutes, fell short when his hasty fling in the direction of B.J Cunningham was intercepted at the 4-yard line.
"I made a poor decision," Cousins said. "I made a costly error and needed to throw the ball away or take a sack, or anything but throw the ball where I threw it. I made a very poor decision.
Cousins had driven MSU 52 yards, from the Spartan 20 to the Notre Dame 18, from the 2:58 mark to the :57 mark, when he made the critical error on second down and 10.
"So much of football, you are reacting off of instincts and what you've learned in the past," Cousins said. "I saw B.J. flashing across the middle. He's got a lot of size. He can catch the ball in traffic. I was getting hit, and felt like I needed to get rid of it, didn't want to take a sack. In hindsight, I should have taken a sack. I made a poor decision. I didn't really have a reason to do what I did, necessarily."
Michigan State's pass protection, which was solid all day, allowed part of a six-man blitz to pressure Cousins in the pocket. He looked right, looked left, then heaved a side-arm pass off his back foot, a pass head coach Mark Dantonio described as "a little bit blind."
"Yeah, got pressure," Dantonio said. "Not sure where the pressure came from. Forced him out of the pocket. You try to make a play throwing late over the middle, you don't really know when it's happening. Probably just needs to ditch the ball. Line up and kick the ball if we can. Go to overtime if that's what we have to do.
"Again, I guess I want to point at the other things. Great play by Notre Dame blocking the extra point. Probably the play of the game when you really look at it. If everything else unfolds as is, we're kicking a field goal to win it. We're not getting down the field without Kirk Cousins. He did an outstanding job. No one feels worse than he does about this. He will rise again. He will rise up."
The blocked extra point came after Larry Caper's picturesque 7-yard TD run, behind the blocking of Andrew Hawken and Charlie Gantt, cut Notre Dame's lead to 26-23 with 1:24 left in the third quarter.
Then Chris L. Rucker, one of the goats from last week's loss to Central Michigan, came up big with a pass break up on a deep pass for Golden Tate in the end zone on third-and-14.
That put the ball back in Cousins' hands, which were steady and precise most of the day. He finished with 302 yards on 23-of-35 passing with 1 TD.
On the go-ahead drive, Cousins found Mark Dell on a shallow crossing route for a catch-and-run of 55 yards, reminiscent of game-changing plays of similar stock made by Gari Scott (1999), Herb Haygood (2000) and Charles Rogers (2001) in this series in the last 11 years.
Two plays later, Cousins lofted a perfect pass for Blair White on a post corner for a 17-yard TD, making it 30-26 with 9:33 to go.
"I just threw it up and let Blair White be Blair White," Cousins said.
Eight minutes and :23 seconds later, Cousins would again have a teammate coming open in the exact same area of the end zone, this time wide open. It was freshman RB Larry Caper, ignored by the Irish pass defense and running alone with the promise of possibly making an historic catch with 1:10 left.
Cousins looked left, pumped right, then quickly threw back left to Caper. He overthrew him, as Caper let the pass fall through his finger tips while trying to make a tightrope catch in the back of the end zone. Perhaps Caper should have been able to haul it in. But he never should have had to reach so far for it. He was all alone.
"Until I see the film, I don't know (for sure what happened)," Cousins said. "It looked from my vantage point like it was overthrown. He is really a last option on that play and it really surprised me how open he was. You expect a defense to let a guy get behind you. In that situation, you don't want to lob it up and put it up for grabs. I didn't realize how open he was. I tried to lead him and I over-lead him. He was kind of a last-second thought. I kind of reacted and overthrew it."
MSU called its last timeout to discuss the circumstances on second-and-10. The talk didn't seem to refocus him. He threw the interception on the next snap.
"We work so hard. We work year-round, many hours a day to make sure in situations like that, that we don't make decisions like that. And I did. And I fail," Cousins said. "It was a major mistake. It didn't come out cleanly. I am not sure how much I got hit; it all happened so fast. I believe I got hit on the play. I felt like I could stand in there and deliver a clean pass, but when I got hit, the ball is going to flutter and that's what I think happened. It was a major mistake by me."
Cousins' 302 yards are the third most by a Spartan QB in the Notre Dame series, behind Drew Stanton's 327 in 2005 and Eddie Smith's 306 in 1978.
Consistency is expected to be a Cousins trademark as he loosens up and gains a tighter grasp on MSU's everyday quarterback job. He came into this game 23-of-35 on the year, the exact same numbers he achieved in this game alone. Now 46-for-70 (65.7 percent), with 5 TD passes and 1 interception on the year, for 649 yards, Cousins will likely remain atop the Big Ten standings is passing efficiency.
"Pretty good," Cousins said when asked how he felt he played, aside from the late interception. "It was a good day, but a quarterback is measured on wins and losses and how he plays in crunch time. And right now I'm 1-2 as a starter, and I made a critical error in crunch time. So I've got some things to work on.
"I had some opportunities out there made some plays. I didn't make the one I needed to make. We'll see as time goes on what happens. We start the Big Ten season now. We focus. We'll learn from it. This is the most important stretch, the quest for a Big Ten championship. That's not going to be easy. It's going to be a battle every Saturday."
The day marked Cousins' first experience of starting a game on the road, and doing it on some of the most sacred soil in football history.
"Words can't really describe the feeling," he said.
Nor can the malaise of facing questions from media after a terrific afternoon of quarterbacking was instantly overshadowed by a mistake, in front of millions.
"It hurts," he said. "I'm hurting right now. It's part of the job. It's part of what you deal with. I'm a man. I'll take it. I have to keep my head up. My teammates will make sure I do that.
"We said at halftime, 'Guys if we don't beat ourselves, we will win this football game.' It came down to the end and I allowed us to beat ourselves.
"There is nothing I can do now except learn from it and keep working, like I've been working, and hopefully the next time we get down there (we'll be successful). I have to learn from it and I have to bounce back."
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