EAST LANSING - Kirk Cousins may have had reason to distrust Keshawn Martin on a pair of key red zone situations during Saturday's victory over Michigan. But Cousins didn't hesitate for a moment in going to Martin when a pair of crucial read progressions took him to the slippery senior.
Martin had dropped a pair of passes earlier in the game, including a perfectly-thrown bomb on the first drive which should have resulted in an easy touchdown, prior to his heroics against the Wolverines.
He made amends on third-and-goal at the 10-yard line on Michigan State's crucial opening drive of the second half, Cousins put his faith in Martin by zipping a short-side hitch to him at the 4-yard line.
"To throw the ball short of the goal line on third-and-goal is a little bit risky, and Keshawn did the rest from there," Cousins said.
Martin dodged the tackle attempt of cornerback J.T. Floyd, tight-roped three steps up the sideline, and squirmed toward the goal line. Martin put his shoulders down to absorb a heavy blow from linebacker Brandin Hawthorne and another from Jordon Kovacs while extending the ball to the pylon for his first TD of the season and the go-ahead touchdown at 14-7.
"That's why we talk about how special Keshawn is, and the things he can do, making people miss," Cousins said.
Cousins trusted Martin to catch it, and also to get yards after the catch - something that Martin lost sight of in Michigan State's last game, at Ohio State.
On the Spartans' first drive of the second half in their victory over the Buckeyes, Martin caught a bubble screen on second-and-four, seemed to get upfield far enough for first down yardage, and then instead of putting his head down, securing the first down with maybe a yard or two extra after contact, Martin gave up ground and tried to juke and dodge his way around two or three defenders for a bigger play. In the process, Martin relinquished forward progress and was tackled behind first-down yardage.
Michigan State failed to pick up third-and-one on the next snap, and the Spartans went three-and-out in the opening series of the second half in Columbus. Spartan fans grumbled.
This time, against Michigan, Martin had a more difficult task. This time, it was third down. This time, he had farther to go to convert the yardage. This time, a touchdown was at stake, not just a first down. And this time, he put his shoulders down and his nose into contact for one of the grittier plays of his career.
"When you're that close to the end, you will try anything to try to get in," Martin said. "My mindset was to take the hits, try to stretch the ball out and get over the goal line and that's what I did and it worked pretty good."
Martin acknowledged that his missed opportunity on second-and-four at Ohio State came up as a teaching point in the film room last week.
"All that Coach told me is that you have to be aware of where the sticks are," Martin said. "At Ohio State, I knew where the sticks were, and I was just trying to make a play. But you just have to pick up first downs.
"This time I knew exactly where I had to go and the down and distance situation."
Did the lesson at Ohio State make Martin a better player for this game, for this situation?
"In a sense you could say that," Martin said. "I feel every game, you have to get better and I feel like I played good today. I had a couple of drops but for the most part, I did all right."
Problems With Ball Security
Martin's dropped pass on the long bomb on Michigan State's first possession of the game did not turn out to be costly. The Spartans scored later on that drive anyway.
Martin's second drop came on a sideline route in the third quarter, just four snaps before his go-ahead TD.
"I think you can attribute some of the drops to the wind because the ball was probably knuckling a little bit," Cousins said.
Said Martin: "The ball was moving a little bit. On the punt returns and throws, it was difficult but you just have to be focused on the ball."
On MSU's third drive of the second half - leading to the Spartans' third TD drive of the game - Martin almost aborted the mission when he dropped a bubble screen on second-and-8 at the MSU 41-yard line. Replays indicate that the screen might have been a lateral. Referees blew it dead, and ended any hopes Michigan had of a scoop-and-score opportunity.
Not only did Martin drop the pass, he also failed to have the presence of mind to cover the ball just in case it was ruled a lateral and fumble. That will be another teaching point for film room this week.
As will ball security, as Martin had the ball poked loose by Floyd during an end around run deep in MSU territory with 9:36 remaining and the Spartans leading just 21-14.
But the Spartans wouldn't have had those 21 points without another tremendous effort by Martin inside the 10-yard line.
Inside The Play
On the Martin TD which put MSU up 21-7, it was second-and-eight, and Martin anticipated the play with the wisdom of a veteran.
"I went in motion and I saw the corner (Floyd) running with me," Martin said.
That indicated man-to-man coverage.
Then Martin stopped and went back in motion the other way toward the original bunch formation.
Martin also noticed that Floyd didn't hit his brakes and go back the other way with Martin.
That two-step advantage was also Martin needed. And he knew Cousins would see it the same way.
"He (Floyd) wasn't really looking to see if I was going to come back or not so as soon as I came back I knew Kirk was about to throw me the ball because the corner was all the way over there," Martin said.
Cousins shot it to Martin on a little sprint-out number. Martin caught it in stride and turned upfield.
"I just had to make one miss, and got it in the end zone.
Cousins made an inside cut and sidestepped Kovacs. And then Martin smelled the pylon again, and extended the ball over the goal line, through the contact of Floyd and Courtney Avery to send the Spartan sideline into happy spasms.
"In the red zone I think we played well enough to score touchdowns, which is a huge factor," said Mark Dantonio. "Especially with the two touchdown passes (to Martin). Big plays."
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