Mark Dantonio continues to preach about how Michigan State’s players are like a family and allude that their locker room is like a warm, caring home. They all have each others’ backs.
That well may be the case, but one-sided relationships always have a breaking point. And right now, the Spartans’ dominant defense is clearly at the mercy of its dormant offense.
Dantonio used three different quarterbacks – Connor Cook and Tyler O’Connor in the first half, then Andrew Maxwell and Cook in the second – with similarly teeth-clenching results. It’s clear through 120 minutes of football this season why Dantonio and his staff had such a difficult time choosing between those three during fall camp, because there honestly does appear to be very little separation between them – and not in a good way.
“Of course I’m concerned,” Dantonio said. “How much? On a scale of one to 10 – if you were the head coach – I would say it’s about eight. I’m concerned.”
The coach said he turned to Maxwell in the second half after he didn’t take many snaps during the week “because I believed he gave us the best chance to put the ball down the field, because he knows the most about our offense.” When that failed after two drives, he went back to Cook and away from Maxwell yet again because “you’ve got to make things happen. I don’t know any other way to say it.”
Maxwell was not made available to the media following the game, but MSU released this statement from him: “It’s difficult to get into the flow (of the game) when you come off the bench, but that’s the way we’ve operated the first two games. So you have to be flexible. I knew there was a possibility that I’d be called upon at halftime to start the second half, so I had to lock in and focus. We moved the ball, but unfortunately, we had some drive stoppers: penalties, negative plays, turnovers. We did some good things on the ground, but we have to get production from the passing game and finish drives. We can’t be afraid to sustain long drives.”
Sophomore Cook made his first career start and got the bulk of the reps during the game, playing eight of the Spartans’ 12 drives. He went 6 of 11 passing for 32 yards with 10 rushing yards, but he got sacked and fumbled away the ball. Cook led the only offensive TD drive, helped by great field position from his defense and 15 of the 33 yards from Jeremy Langford’s legs.
Redshirt freshman O’Connor played two drives and was 2 of 4 passing for 22 yards while losing 4 yards rushing. Fifth-year senior Maxwell, in his two drives, completed 4 of 9 throws for a team-best 40 yards. It all adds up to 12 completions on 24 attempts for 94 yards through the air between the three.
“It is a work in progress, and it is just the beginning for our offense,” Cook said.
Two offensive touchdowns in two weeks. It’s an inauspicious start at best, a cataclysmic one at worst. So how can Dantonio and his staff find “that spark” they’ve talked about all week?
The easy and most pointless thing for fans to do is to keep calling for Damion Terry to start at quarterback. Dantonio said the true freshman was evaluated for strep throat and mononucleosis this week and also dislocated his thumb during a practice. That might well be true, or it could be somewhat of a smokescreen to temporarily calm the current clamor. Every week Terry doesn’t play, though, it looks less and less likely that he will. If he remains on the bench against Youngstown State next week, he’s almost certain to get a redshirt.
Dantonio said his staff will rewatch the game, assess what each of the three QBs did and then approach practice this week as part of the continuing competition. One of them will get the nod, and MSU needs to stick with that guy through the entirety – or at least a full half - of the YSU game next week to allow them to build some type of rhythm. The revolving door that’s currently operating isn’t allowing any of the three to do that. It’s the last “exhibition” game the Spartans will have to do so before the gauntlet part of the schedule begins Sept. 21 at Notre Dame.
Beyond the quarterback situation, there are other things for MSU to be concerned about. And those issues are widespread.
The Spartans have completed one pass this season for 7 yards to a tight end, and that one came last week. Their receivers dropped only one pass this week but have seven for the season and are neither running crisp routes nor getting very good separation from opposing defenders. The offensive line struggled with pass protection and remains banged up, though Fou Fonoti didn’t start but did play during the game for the second straight week.
Andre Sims Jr. continued to struggle on punts, getting just 19 yards on nine returns and looking less and less like the answer to solve another carryover concern from 2012. The sophomore’s fumble set up South Florida deep in MSU territory late in the first half and resulted in a Bulls field goal. There also were two penalties on the return team. Meanwhile, Spartans kicker Kevin Muma shanked his only field goal attempt of the day – wide left from 25 yards out.
Yes, despite another stellar effort – scoring two TDs off turnovers by defensive end Shilique Calhoun while allowing just 155 total yards and 66 on the ground – there are two glaring red flags to watch in the future with MSU’s defense: Fatigue and frustration.
The first, obviously as a direct result of the Spartans’ offensive struggles, is that MSU’s defense stayed on the field for 28 minutes and 31 seconds against USF. In two weeks against two inferior opponents, the Spartans have played 55:17 of defensive football – most of it by the starters. That might not matter much in August and September, but those extra possessions and increased snaps begin to take their toll against much more physical foes come the heart of the Big Ten season.
The second concern comes as a result of being on the field for so long. MSU’s defense got sloppy at times and had four penalties for 44 yards – two pass interference calls (one inside the red zone), a personal foul for an illegal facemask and a holding. Their coaches usually don’t mind some penalties that come from being aggressive and attacking a play, but the Spartans can ill-afford to have stupid flags thrown their way when they need to play nearly perfect defense to counterbalance the offense. Taking out their frustrations against the opponent can only keep them on the field longer – and MSU almost certainly won’t face two worse offenses this season than Western Michigan and South Florida.
Everyone continues to toe the company line that Dantonio put forth. Linebacker Denicos Allen claimed the defense “loves being out there on the field making plays” and says he’s positive the offense will get better. Max Bullough said the defense can only worry about itself and “things we can control.”
But captain Allen did give one slight indictment of the offense: “We’re a team. If they’re slacking, then we pick up for them. That’s just what we’ve been doing for the past two years.”
Last year, that “slacking” resulted in a 7-6 record. Dantonio said that won’t be acceptable again. The longer the Spartans’ offensive woes remain this year, we’ll see how long the defense can stay positive and stick up for them.