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December 2, 2011EAST LANSING - Call it the apprenticeship of Kirk Cousins.
That segue in a college quarterback's career where he learns to understand that responding to criticism, constant analysis and continued accountability are just as much a part of the process as making proper reads and throwing tight spirals.
That at some point, you must enjoy the accomplishments along the way just as much or more than you dwell on the mistakes.
It's a lesson Cousins' predecessor Brian Hoyer had to learn, sometimes the hard way, and it's a process of understanding that just may carry the senior quarterback to victory as he leads the No. 11/9 Michigan State (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) against No. 15/12 Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) in Saturday's first-ever Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
It's also a lesson and an approach to a journey that could result in Cousins playing the best game of his college career as the Spartans try and get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in over 20 years.
"When I first was a starter, I was too naive to really understand anything, so I wasn't putting pressure on myself when I was first playing,'' said the Manning Award finalist, one of many honors handed out to the nation's best quarterbacks at season's end. "Obviously, I was in a competition (for the starting job) and there was pressure there but I wasn't putting that kind of pressure on myself then, as a sophomore and even as a junior, than I was early this year because I really wanted to live up to the expectations.''
To Cousins' credit, he has been able to embrace those expectations with a realistic perspective as he closes out a decorated and very successful career as the Spartans' starting QB.
But, it took awhile for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound fifth-year senior, who in MSU's first meeting with the Badgers finished with 22 completions for 290 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions. He out-played former Heisman Trophy candidate Russell Wilson one week after out-playing erstwhile Heisman hopeful Denard Robinson of Michigan.
"When you get to the second half of your senior year, you start to realize that you only have so much time here and to be so concerned about the wins and losses and not enjoy the process, it would be silly, because you're going to regret having that perspective when you leave.''
For Cousins, there have been many more highs than lows during the Spartans' second double-digit-win season.
In a season where he has led MSU to its fourth-straight win over archrival Michigan, a berth in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, become the winningest quarterback in Spartan history and the program's career leader in TD passes (62) and 200-yard passing games (24), the Holland native has not only learned but embraced the idea behind enjoying his journey to success.
"If you're a guy like me, sometimes you've just got to let loose and crack a few more jokes and have a little more fun. It's always been a fine line to walk,'' said Cousins, who is approaching the 3,000-yard mark, already having thrown for 2,735 yards this season. "I watch Drew Brees a lot and I read his book. So many of the things he says in his book and seems to exude at press conferences and the way he relates to his coaches and teammates, it reminds me a lot of me. Just how tough he is on himself and the way he is, so it's worked for him but I think also, you have to have that balance.''
Spartan fans really got to see Cousins embrace the process in MSU's 31-17 win over Northwestern last Saturday. It gave the Spartans the outright Legends Division title but more importantly, it showed just how much fun Cousins was having as he helped his team to continued success.
After hitting fellow senior B.J. Cunningham with a 29-yard touchdown pass that sealed MSU's 31-17 win over Northwestern in the regular season finale, Cousins raced up the field and to the sidelines with his arms raised high in triumph, switching to a thumbs-up sign before jumping in the arms of teammates and eventually MSU quarterbacks coach Dave Warner.
It was a Cousins we weren't used to seeing but it was a Cousins who finally looked the most comfortable he's ever been in his MSU skin.
But getting the balance right took some time.
"It's not my personality to just always have fun,'' said the second team All-Big Ten selection who added 25 yards on four scrambles against the Wildcats. "I always err on the side of being too focused, too intense and putting too much pressure on myself. So I've had to remind myself to just enjoy the journey and just realizing that we've already accomplished quite a bit here.''
That tone was expressed in Cousins' approach to this Saturday's conference title matchup.
The contest, set for an 8:17 p.m. kickoff, will pit the Spartans in a rematch with the Badgers.
In the first meeting, back on Oct. 27, MSU won the contest on a last second 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Cousins to fellow senior Keith Nichol.
It was a win that once again vaulted the Spartans into the national spotlight but, more importantly, became a lesson for Cousins' realization of the joys that can accompany the process.
"One game isn't going to define my legacy suddenly to where I'm no longer a good quarterback. And when you see it that way, it takes a lot of the pressure off of it. I think I will play my best when I'm just out there having fun, and on the flip side, I don't think I'll play my best if I put too much pressure on myself, so I'm going to go into this (Big Ten championship) game saying, 'Hey, we've already accomplished a lot here at Michigan State.'
"I've had a great career, we've had great careers as a senior class and this would be special, it would be a great win and icing on the cake, but I'm not going to let it define me. And I think when you have that mentality, at least for me, I end up playing a lot better.''
That has become apparent as the season has progressed.
"I've played very well, especially this last half of the season. I think it's just been understanding the fact that one game isn't going to make the difference. Let's just go out there and have fun and whatever happens, happens. It may sound a little bit flippant to you but when you're a guy like me who puts so much pressure on himself, I think it's the right kind of perspective to have. But I'm still learning. It's a process.''
It's a process that has put MSU on the doorstep of reaching a goal Mark Dantonio has pointed to ever since his arrival in 2007 - the Rose Bowl.
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