ARLINGTON, Texas — Connor Cook and the Michigan State Spartans want to have a different role in the playoff talk next season.
With their big comeback finish in the Cotton Bowl, the No. 7 Spartans could be set up as a viable championship contender next season, after their only losses this season were to playoff teams.
Michigan State scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter on New Year’s Day to beat playoff-snubbed and No. 4 Baylor 42-41 in the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl ever.
“For us to win in such an emotional and dramatic fashion like you just saw out there, really just I think with all the guys coming back, all the juniors, really just makes us feel good and brings us closer together,” said Cook, who threw a 10-yard TD pass to Keith Mumphery with 17 seconds left.
Michigan State (11-2), which won the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions last season, has won four consecutive bowl games after trailing in each of them at halftime. The Spartans’ only two losses this season were to Pac-12 winner Oregon and Big Ten champ Ohio State.
Down 41-21 going into the fourth quarter, Michigan State got the winning touchdown after Marcus Rush blocked Chris Callahan’s 43-yard field goal attempt with 1:05 left.
“It’s just sort of crazy,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I really probably can’t put it into words. We just kept pace. We didn’t panic.”
When two-time Big 12 champ Baylor got the ball back for one last try, Bryce Petty was sacked on consecutive plays before Riley Bullough’s clinching interception.
That was quite a final defensive stand under coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who after 11 seasons and two schools with Dantonio is leaving the Spartans to take over as head coach at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi will be about 20 miles away Friday to watch the Panthers play Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl on the TCU campus.
The Cotton Bowl was the lead-in game Thursday to the two national semifinals that Baylor (11-2) hoped to be part of instead — though that doesn’t matter now.
“We’ve played a lot of really good games over the last seven seasons. Won a lot of really good games. And this is one of the tougher non-wins that I’ve ever experienced,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “It’s got nothing to do with the big picture. The small picture right now is letting a game get away from us today.”
Petty completed 36 of 51 passes for a Cotton Bowl-record 550 yards and three touchdowns, two to speedy freshman KD Cannon and the other to 390-pount backup guard LaQuan McGowan in the third quarter for a 41-21 lead. Baylor had 583 total yards, even with minus-20 yards rushing.
Jeremy Langford ran for 162 yards and three touchdowns for the Spartans. Cook was 24-of-42 passing for 314 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Langford’s 1-yard plunge with 4:55 left got the Spartans to 41-35, a play after Cook’s 10-yard scramble that was initially ruled a touchdown before a replay review.
Callahan had a 46-yard field goal attempt that ricocheted off the right upright to start the fourth quarter. Michigan State then got Cook’s 8-yard TD pass to tight end Josiah Price and recovered an onside kick.
Cook threw a 39-yard pass on the first play after the recovery, but was scrambling to avoid pressure on the next when threw an awkward pass right to linebacker Taylor Young, who ran 84 yards to the end zone.
Young’s apparent touchdown was wiped out by an illegal block, pushing Baylor back to its 43. After Petty’s fourth-down incompletion, Michigan State went 60 yards for Langford’s final score.
“You hate to ‘if’ it, but if you don’t hit the upright, if you don’t get a field goal blocked, if you don’t have an offensive facemask, if you don’t get a penalty on an interception return, then I think we feel a lot different right now,” Briles said.
Baylor was fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings, a spot ahead of Big 12 co-champion TCU, which the Bears beat 61-58 in October with its own 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter. The Horned Frogs won their bowl game handily, beating Mississippi 42-3 in the Peach Bowl on Wednesday.
Cannon, already with a 49-yard TD catch, split two Michigan State defenders and was in a full sprint when he reached out with both hands and made a fingertip grab near the 35. He gathered the ball in and ran to the end zone to finish a 74-yard TD before Callahan added another field goal for a 34-14 lead early in the third quarter.
Cannon finished with eight catches for 197 yards. Corey Coleman had seven catches for 150 yards, including a 53-yard score on a throw from fellow receiver Jay Lee.
“When you’re down like that against a potent offense that’s pretty much scoring at will, it doesn’t really look too good,” Cook said. “It’s just a true statement never to give up.”