Mark Richt was less than pleased with how his program finished last season with a loss to Central Florida. The Bulldogs look to atone for that today in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State.
TAMPA, Fla. — Losing the final game is tough for any team, especially one that’s had the type of success that led 12th-ranked Michigan State and No. 18 Georgia to the Outback Bowl.
BCS hopefuls until they lost the championship games of their conferences, the Spartans and Bulldogs — who have both had great seasons, regardless of the outcomes of their conference title games — are eager to rebound and finish on a winning note today.
Want To Watch?
WHO: No. 18 UGA (10-3) vs. No. 12 Michigan State (10-3).
WHAT: Outback Bowl.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today.
WHERE: Tampa, Fla.
RADIO: WGPC-AM 1450 or WJAD-FM 103.5.
LINE: Bulldogs by 3 points.
Michigan State has dropped five consecutive bowl games, four of them under coach Mark Dantonio. Georgia is 7-3 in holiday appearances under Mark Richt, but hasn’t forgotten how it felt heading home following a disappointing loss to Central Florida in last season’s Liberty Bowl.
Neither team is dwelling on the importance of setting the tone for a successful 2012, though they concede the offseason won’t seem nearly as long coming off a win.
“I don’t think anybody enjoyed the last bowl game for us,” Richt said.
Richt said while the Bulldogs’ disappointing performance against UCF hasn’t been much of a motivation in preparing for the Outback Bowl, it did spur his players in the months leading up to this season.
“You talk about energy, there wasn’t a whole lot of it,” Richt said. “(Central Florida) played harder than us, they played better than us, the played more physical than us, they deserved to win the game that day, there’s no question about that. I think our players understood why they won and why we didn’t.”
Michigan State hasn’t won a bowl game since beating Fresno State in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl. The Spartans have lost by an average of three touchdowns in their past three appearances under Dantonio, including New Year’s Day losses to Georgia (24-12) and Alabama (49-7) in the Capital One Bowl in 2009 and 2011.
Despite a lack of bowl success under Dantonio, the Spartans have made significant progress during the coach’s five years in East Lansing. This season’s outgoing senior class is comprised mostly of Dantonio’s first recruits and has 36 victories, more than any group in the 115-year history of the Michigan State program.
“I talked about it a little bit just in terms of how you feel as a coach addressing your football team after a loss, when you’re looking at your seniors and it’s their last football game, they’re taking off that uniform for the last time,” Dantonio said.
“It’s more about how you feel after the game,” the coach added. “It’s more about us all experiencing that and understanding what it’s going to take to rectify that situation.”
Michigan State had a school-record 11 victories in 2010 and has won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time. The Spartans’ bid for a trip to the Rose Bowl ended with a 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game last month.
Dantonio feels people who harp on their bowl record since his arrival aren’t seeing the whole picture.
“I think we’ve played some outstanding football teams in that period of four years. You get a game like this, you’re going to play somebody good,” the Spartans’ coach said. “That’s a thing people need to recognize. It’s always about the last game you played. You’re evaluated on that last game. You finish on a high note, things look great. ... We were 11-1 last year, played Alabama. All you heard about basically was: ‘We didn’t get it done, this and that.’ It’s about how you finish.”
Georgia’s loss in last season’s Liberty Bowl left the Bulldogs with the only losing season they’ve had in 11 seasons under Richt. They began this season with consecutive losses Boise State and South Carolina, then rattled off 10 consecutive wins heading into the Southeastern Conference Championship game against top-ranked LSU.
The Bulldogs built an early 10-0 lead but were dominated during the final three quarters to lose the title game, 42-10.
“I really hadn’t thought much about last year’s bowl game recently,” Richt began, “but it certainly was something that jumpstarted our offseason.”
Looking back on the Capital One Bowl matchup against Michigan State three years ago, the Georgia coach noted that the Bulldogs were loaded with talent that included several players who have been — or eventually will be — drafted into the NFL, including 2009 No. 1 overall selection Matthew Stafford.
Richt watched film of that game, gleaning information that might be helpful for preparing to face the Spartans again. He couldn’t help but wonder, too, if his own team is as talented now as it was heading into the previous meeting in Orlando.
“The players we had on offense, a lot of those guys ended up in the NFL. ... So, I’m like, ‘Gosh, are we as good as we were back then?’ That’s going to be a big question,” Richt said. “Michigan State is a very well-coached team football team. When you watch film you can tell in a heartbeat.”
The Outback Bowl trip has been a homecoming for Georgia stars Aaron Murray and Orson Charles. The quarterback and tight end were high school teammates and won a state championship at nearby Plant High.
Murray has thrown for 2,861 yards and a Bulldogs’ single-season record 33 touchdowns. Charles, who may consider turning pro after the game, has a team-leading 44 receptions for 572 yards and five TDs.
It will be Kirk Cousins’ last game for Michigan State. In addition to having more wins than any quarterback in school history with 26, the senior has thrown for 3,016 yards and 24 TDs this season. He’s 102 yards shy of becoming the Spartans’ career leader in yards passing.
“I’ve told my dad and my family lately that I feel like I’ve given everything I can to Michigan State. Win or lose, I’ll be very proud of the effort that I’ve and our program have given over the past five years,” Cousins said.
“I understand there’s been some tough losses and times we’ve fallen short, but I believe I’ve never once look at myself and regretted not giving more. I’ve given all I can to make this program the best it can be and so I’m very proud of that effort.”
BREAKING DOWN THE OUTBACK BOWL:
Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3), 1 p.m. (ABC)
Line: Georgia by 3.
Series Record: Georgia leads 2-0.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
After losing the conference championship games in their respective conferences, the Spartans and Bulldogs are hoping to finish the season on a winning note. Michigan State lost the Big Ten title game to Wisconsin 42-39 and has dropped its last five bowl games, four of them under coach Mark Dantonio. Georgia led top-ranked LSU early in the Southeastern Conference championship game before fading badly in a 42-10 rout. The Bulldogs rallied from an 0-2 start to win their final 10 games of the regular season.
KEY MATCHUPGeorgia QB Aaron Murray vs. a strong Michigan State defense that allowed the fewest yards per game in the Big Ten. Murray has thrown for 2,861 yards and a Bulldogs-record 33 touchdowns, while being intercepted just 12 times. The Spartans led the Big Ten in sacks and rushing defense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michigan State: QB Kirk Cousins has thrown for 3,016 yards, 24 TDs and seven interceptions. He is the winningest quarterback in school history, posting a 26-12 record as a starter, including 21-5 over the past two seasons. RB Le’Veon Bell led the Spartans in rushing, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt on the way to 900 yards and 11 TDs. WR B.J. Cunningham has 72 receptions for 1,240 yards and 12 TDs.
Georgia: Murray has plenty of talented targets when he drops back to throw the ball, including leading TE Orson Charles, who has 44 receptions for 572 yards and five TDs. WRs Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell averaged 12.2 and 16.2 yards per reception, respectively, and combined for 11 TDs. Injuries and suspensions have forced coach Mark Richt to use four different starting tailbacks. Richt said redshirt freshman Ken Malcome likely will start against Michigan State.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Outback Bowl is a homecoming for Georgia’s Murray and Charles, who also were teammates in high school and won a state championship at Tampa Plant. ... Michigan State hasn’t won a bowl game since beating Fresno State 44-35 in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl. The Spartans have gone 0-5 since then, including a 24-12 loss to Georgia in the 2009 Capital One Bowl. ... Richt has led Georgia to a bowl appearance in each of his 11 seasons as coach. The Bulldogs are 7-3 under him, including a 10-6 loss to Central Florida in last season’s Liberty Bowl.