When the fourth quarter began, Baylor was up 41-21 and seemed to have finally won the school’s first Cotton Bowl in its third appearance in the game. They had extended their lead to 20 points thanks to backup offensive guard LaQuan McGowan, who had checked in on the edge of the line as an eligible receiver. When quarterback Bryce Petty saw the 6’7″, 390-pound lineman streaking free without a defender in sight, he lobbed the ball to his gargantuan target.
The 18-yard touchdown seemed to seal the game for the Bears against Michigan State. When Spartans quarterback Connor Cook threw an interception on the following drive, victory seemed inevitable. A missed Baylor field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter seemed mere mathematics, inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.
But as time slipped away from the defending Rose Bowl champions, Michigan State started to chip away at the lead. Cook found Josiah Price for an eight-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the final frame at the end of a five-play drive that needed just over two minutes to cover 79 yards. Cook would throw a second interception on the next drive, negating a successful onside kick, but the Spartans recovered to score twice in the last five minutes to pass Baylor on the scoreboard. The comeback gave Michigan State the Cotton Bowl victory in its first appearance in the game, completing an 11-2 season in which the Spartans’ only losses came to the two teams that will square off for the national championship on January 12.
For Baylor, it is a second straight opportunity lost. Last year the Bears won their first Big 12 title and earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl as a result. There they faced UCF, the AAC champion in that league’s last year of automatic-qualifying status as the former Big East, losing 52-42 to the Knights in a game they never led. This year the chance was there, with 27 unanswered points reversing an early 14-7 Michigan State lead and putting Art Briles’ team ahead by 20 in the third quarter. Spartans tailback Jeremy Langford found the endzone on his second of three touchdown runs to reduce the deficit to 34-21 before McGowan’s unexpected score capped the third-quarter scoring.
The fourth quarter belonged to Michigan State. Langford scored a third touchdown on a day where he carried 27 times for 162 hard-fought yards, Cook hit Price and Keith Mumphery on touchdown passes, and everything fell apart for Baylor both defensively and offensively. The Bears defense had held the Spartans to just 302 total yards of offense through three quarters; they gave up 250 yards in the fourth-quarter collapse. A Baylor offense that had put up 516 yards in the first three quarters, meanwhile, was held by Michigan State’s defense to just 67 once the last quarter commenced.
As a result Bryce Petty, one of the most prolific passers over the past two seasons, finished his college career 0-2 as the starter in Baylor bowl games. Petty put up a ridiculous stat line in losses to UCF and Michigan State: 66 of 98 (67.3 percent) for 906 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions, along with four rushing touchdowns. This year alone, he accounted for 550 passing yards and completed over 70 percent of his passes against a stout Spartan defense.
But the ultimate goal, victory, was not to be his. Instead it was the redshirt junior Cook, a much less-heralded quarterback on a team defined by its defense, who experienced the thrill of winning. He completed fewer of his passes for several hundred fewer yards with fewer touchdowns and one more interception than Petty, but he once again was successful in crunch time as the Spartans engineered a second-half bowl comeback for the second straight year.