Arlington, Texas – Almost nothing was going right for Michigan State on Thursday.
In the 79th Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium, Baylor was hitting deep pass after deep pass while Michigan State was making mistake after mistake.
As Baylor, the No. 5 team in the country that was still stinging from getting left out of the College Football Playoff, was busy building a 20-point second-half lead and doing so by throwing touchdown passes to 400-pound linemen, the Spartans looked lost.
Nothing indicated a comeback was in store.
Except, almost inexplicably, that's exactly what happened.
No. 8 Michigan State, trailing by 20 points entering the third quarter, scored 21 straight in the fourth quarter, the final touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery from 10 yards out coming with 17 seconds to play.
It gave the Spartans a 42-41 victory over Baylor in front of a pro-Bears crowd of 71,464. It was the fourth straight bowl victory for Michigan State, the fourth Big Ten program to achieve the milestone. It also gives the Spartans 11 wins in four of the last five seasons and sends the senior class out with a record-tying 42 victories.
"It's just sort of crazy," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
That it was, especially considering this is the fourth straight bowl game the Spartans trailed at halftime and each game ended with a Michigan State victory. This one produced the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl ever.
But none of the previous victories – over the likes of Georgia, TCU and Stanford – could match the improbability of this one.
"I really probably can't put it in words, but we just kept pace," Dantonio said. "We didn't panic. We knew they had a good football team. And when they made a play, we regrouped and kept trying to play."
The comeback started innocently enough with an 8-yard pass from Cook to tight end Josiah Price after a missed Baylor field goal with 12:09 left in the game, cutting Baylor's lead to 41-28.
Michigan State (11-2) looked like it was on its way to cutting the Baylor lead to six points following the Price touchdown when Jermaine Edmondson recovered an onside kick. On the next play, Cook hit Aaron Burbridge with a 39-yard pass to the Baylor 14.
But Cook was intercepted on the next play by Baylor's Taylor Young, who went all the way for a touchdown. But a block in the back negated the score and the Spartans responded by getting a fourth-down stop.
Sixty yards later, Jeremy Langford scored from a yard out with 4:55 to play, cutting the Bears' lead to 41-35.
The momentum was shifting, and even the Bears could feel it.
"It's a 60-minute game," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "You got to play. You got to make plays on the field."
And it looked like Baylor was going to make just enough, moving into position for a 43-yard field goal attempt with 1:28 to play. But that's when fifth-year senior Marcus Rush blocked the kick and RJ Williamson returned it to the Baylor 45 with 1:05 to play.
It was Michigan State's turn to make a few more plays, and it came from a quarterback who had been a little bit off the entire game.
"There's no panic," Cook said. "Looking into the offensive linemen's eyes, looking into everyone's eyes, everyone just seemed cool. I think I tried to keep my composure as best as possible. I was sailing it a little bit because I was a little nervous.
"But everyone was real cool. The guys on the sideline were cool looking over getting the signals. But there was never a doubt in my mind."
Cook was big on the final drive, hitting Mumphery for an 18-yard gain on the first play before misfiring three straight times. He responded with a 17-yard strike to Tony Lippett on fourth down, and two plays later, connected with Mumphery to tie the game.
The extra point from Michael Geiger was the difference.
"To score the winning touchdown," said Mumphery, a fifth-year senior. "I don't even know what to say."
Baylor (11-2) could muster no comeback as the Spartans got two straight sacks and Riley Bullough put it away with an interception.
"Credit to everybody to keep fighting and it's almost indescribable how that game ended," senior safety Kurtis Drummond said. "I just love this team and this is definitely something that I'll remember forever.
Cook finished 24-for-42 for 314 yards and two touchdowns while Langford ran 27 times for 162 yards, his 10th straight game over 100 yards, and scored three times.
Petty threw for 550 yards and three touchdowns while KD Cannon had eight catches for 197 yards and Corey Coleman had seven catches for 150 yards.
"I keep saying over and over we win because of chemistry on our football team," Dantonio said. "And chemistry is something that is almost magical at times or exists. It's intangible. … It's a feeling of belief in each other, and that's what we have. We don't give up on each other."