HIS TIME HAS COME. FOR HIS ENTIRE CAREER IN EAST LANSING, KIRK COUSINS HAS BEEN overshadowed by flashier, more renowned Big Ten quarterbacks such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, Michigan's Denard Robinson and Northwestern's Dan Persa. But now Michigan State's third-year quarterback is the most experienced in the conference, and he's ready to step into the spotlight. "Every year he's gotten better," says coach Mark Dantonio. "His leadership has grown by leaps and bounds. This is his offense. This is his team."
A native of Holland, Mich., a town nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, Cousins has been regarded in his two seasons as the Spartans' starting signal-caller as a capable if not spectacular quarterback, especially last year. As a junior he threw for 2,825 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and ranked 18th nationally in passing efficiency.
Cousins also showed he may be the toughest quarterback in the conference. Early in the first half of Michigan State's Oct. 16 game against Illinois, ferocious All--Big Ten linebacker Martez Wilson took down Cousins, who twisted his ankle. Later in the half Wilson threw Cousins to the grass, spraining his nonthrowing shoulder. Cousins stayed in the game despite the pain and helped lead the Spartans to a win.
A month later, in a signature win against Purdue, Cousins completed 28 of 37 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He had left the game in the first half with a reinjured shoulder but returned and, despite the shoulder and ankle injuries, scored the game-winning touchdown on a three-yard run as the Spartans rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter to win 35--31.
"Kirk is a tough, tough player," says Dantonio. "He embraces the big moments and doesn't shy away from anything. The players look up to his toughness and feed off of it."
Cousins did indeed shine in some big spots last year: He threw two touchdown passes and completed 17 of 22 passes for 152 yards in a win at Penn State that clinched a share of the Big Ten title. And he completed 70% of his passes (102 of 146) for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the second half of games. But he also showed a tendency to wilt under heavy pressure. With his team 8--0 and facing undefeated Iowa and its unforgiving defense in a conference showdown, Cousins threw three interceptions in a 37--6 loss. In the Capital One Bowl against a swarming Alabama defense, he completed just 10 of 18 passes for a season-low 120 yards and no touchdowns.
"Both games were very physical," says Dantonio. "Kirk didn't have a lot of time; he was forced out of the pocket. I think he'll build off the experience."
Over his career Cousins has quietly put together a spectacular résumé. He has completed more than 64% of his passes, which ranks first in school history. His 146.7 passing efficiency rating is also first in the Michigan State record book.
This off-season, after training in Southern California with a quarterbacks coach, Cousins visited the Rose Bowl. It was the first time he had been to the hallowed stadium, so he got out of his car and walked around the grounds. The quarterback is sure of one thing: This season will be his last chance to take the Spartans to Pasadena. In other words, he knows his time has come.