The TCU Horned Frogs and the Michigan State Spartans are set to clash in the postseason on Dec. 29 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tucson, Arizona in what is now known as the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Formerly the Insight Bowl and the Copper Bowl, this event has pitted many a team from the Big Ten Conference against a school representing the Big 12. This year, the team coming out of the latter league is the TCU Horned Frogs, led by head coach Gary Patterson who figured to have his hands full with the transition from the Mountain West Conference to one of the BCS groups that has long been established as a hotbed for college football supremacy.
The Frogs started off the 2012 campaign with four straight wins and victories in five of the first six contests, but then problems off the field forced coach Patterson to go with an unproven commodity at quarterback in Trevone Boykin, and the struggles began midway through the month of October.
TCU ended up losing four of its final six games, beating only West Virginia and Texas, both on the road, by a combined eight points. At 7-5, the Horned Frogs had the required victory total to be considered for the postseason, although their 4-5 mark in league play was less than spectacular.
"It has been a long season," coach Patterson says of the disappointing 2012 campaign. "Like I have said before, it has been a tough season what these kids have gone through and had to put up with. A lot of that is not their fault."
As for the Spartans, they began the season with a bang, taking down nationally-ranked Boise State at home in a 17-13 final, the first of three wins in the first four contests, but like the Horned Frogs, MSU and head coach Mark Dantonio also made a wrong turn in October and subsequently dropped four of their final six decisions. On Nov. 24, the Spartans took out Minnesota in the Big Ten finale, 26-10, in order to earn the all-important sixth win of the campaign. Needless to say, finishing 3-5 in league play was not what the Spartans set out for in late August.
TCU, which first appeared in a postseason affair back in 1921 in the Fort Worth Dixie Classic, has a record of 13-14-1 in bowls heading into this meeting with MSU. The Horned Frogs have won back-to-back bowl games against Wisconsin (21-19) in the Rose Bowl two years ago, and Louisiana Tech (31-24) in last year's Poinsettia Bowl. The squad has rattled off six wins in the last seven postseason opportunities, the lone setback coming against Boise State (17-10) in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.
As for the Spartans, they too have a long and storied past in the postseason, dating back to a 6-0 loss to Auburn in the 1938 Orange Bowl. More recently, the team clashed with Georgia in an epic Outback Bowl last year, making it through three overtime periods in order to claim a 33-30 victory over the Bulldogs.
For Michigan State, the win over Georgia was the first in postseason action since a 44-35 triumph versus Fresno State in the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl. In between, the Spartans had dropped five straight postseason bids, which is why the program currently shows an 8-14 record in such contests all-time.
This game marks just the second meeting between the programs, with MSU posting a 26-19 victory in the first battle at Spartan Stadium way back in 1953.
With one of the least experienced rosters in college football this season, the Horned Frogs did the best with what they had, mostly against a new set of opponents as well. The top performer for the squad had to be Devonte Fields who was not only named the AP Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but also a unanimous selection by the coaches as the Defensive Freshman of the Year in the conference.
Fields appeared in all 12 games for the Frogs, registering 49 total stops, but what made him so special was where many of those tackles took place as he recorded team highs with 17.5 tackles for loss and 9 sacks. The youngster also caused a couple of fumbles for a group that finished tied for 38th in the nation and third in the Big 12 in turnover margin (plus-0.42 per contest).
Other notable performers on that side of the ball for TCU are Elisha Olabode, third on the team in total tackles (66) and tied for second in interceptions (4), while Jason Verrett was seemingly always around the ball when it was in the air, resulting in 6 picks and 20 passes defended. Also one to keep an eye on is linebacker Kenny Cain, who was named First-Team All-Big 12 for his effort.
On the offense, the loss of quarterback Casey Pachall was devastating because he started out so well after a strong 2011 campaign. Coach Patterson brought in Boykin to save the day and while there were plenty of rough patches, the youngster survived by hitting 58.6 percent of his pass attempts for 15 touchdowns, but also 9 interceptions. Boykin is also the third-leading rusher for the group with 380 net yards, but the pressure in the pocket brought with it plenty of negative-yardage plays as well.
Josh Boyce and Brandon Carter stand as the most productive receivers for the group with a combined 95 grabs for close to 1,400 yards and 13 scores.
If the overall season stats for the MSU defense are any indication, Boyce, Carter and Boykin will be hard-pressed to come up with significant yardage in this meeting. The pass defense for the Spartans was third-best in the Big Ten, and ninth in the country overall, allowing just 173.7 ypg, and because of that the group permitted just 273.3 ypg of total offense (fourth in the country) and a mere 16.3 ppg (10th nationally).
Doing a considerable amount of damage for the MSU defense was linebacker Max Bullough who led the team in tackles (102) and tied for the lead in TFL (12), as he was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award and a First-Team All-Big Ten performer by the league's coaches. Williams Gholston has less than half the total tackle number (50) as Bullough, yet had the same number of TFL.
At running back, the Spartans feature not only one of the top performers in the conference but in the nation, as Le'Veon Bell averaged 137.3 ypg to rank third in the country. With more than half of his 1,648 yards generated after contact, Bell is not someone who goes down easy and will need to have several TCU defenders swarm to him when he has the ball. Averaging close to five yards per carry, Bell scored all but one of the team's 12 rushing TDs.
Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell is capable of managing games from the standpoint that he is more likely to play conservatively than he is to take chances with his passes down the field. In fact, in four of the final six games of the regular season the signal-caller threw for fewer than 200 yards.
Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery both caught 41 passes, the former turning his into 524 yards and a team-best 4 TDs, and the latter accounting for 511 yards and landing in the end zone just once for an offense that ranked ninth in the conference in total yards (370.3 ypg), and 107th nationally in scoring (20.3 ppg).
"You're going to play an opponent that is really well-matched with you and is a big-time opponent," MSU's Maxwell said of this matchup. "If this game was in September or October, I think people would circle it on the calendar and look toward it. Bowl games are a big opportunity for everyone involved."