April 25, 2009
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins took turns throwing for touchdowns in Michigan State's spring game on Saturday afternoon, compiling stats reflecting their competition to be the Spartans' new starting quarterback.
Nichol and the White squad edged Cousins and the Green team 38-37 in overtime, after each sophomore threw for 357 yards and four scores. The battle finally ended when Dan Fortener broke up Cousins' two-point pass in the end zone.
"I think you saw why we look at our quarterbacks and say it's too close to call," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Both guys responded when they were down and made big plays. And both guys had receivers make catches with guys draped all over them."
Nichol, a transfer from Oklahoma, was 20-for-28 through the air and used his running ability in protected situations to buy time and frustrate defenders.
He hit tight end Brian Linthicum with a 2-yard toss for a 17-0 lead, found wide receiver B.J. Cunningham on a roll-left laser for a 32-yard score and gave his team a 31-24 lead with a 39-yard strike to wideout Myles White with :50 left.
"Everyone pictures making plays, but they don't usually happen like that," Nichol said. "The receivers made a lot of great catches and made me look better than I am. It's good that it went to overtime. That's how Coach Dantonio wanted it."
Cousins was 29-for-43 and demonstrated the kind of precision passing that produced 10 straight completions against Ohio State as Brian Hoyer's backup last season.
A 31-yard pass to wide receiver Mark Dell triggered the comeback. But Cousins showed exceptional poise and patience, hitting tight end Charlie Gantt from 8 yards, then for 7 as time expired. He also found tight end David Duran from 2 yards out in overtime.
"Coach wants us to work our tails off this summer and strive to be the best we can be," Cousins said. "That's why he brought Keith in. He wants us to play with pressure, and that's fine. I don't want to back into the job. I just want to win games."
With four defensive backs not in uniform, Michigan State's air show entertained an estimated 26,000 fans who had to wait for a thunderstorm to clear before the opening kickoff at Spartan Stadium.
"I think the competition we have, not just at quarterback, is great for this football team," Nichol said. "That's what has to happen at every position for us to be Big Ten champions. Kirk is pushing me beyond what I thought I could do, and I hope I'm doing the same for him."
Dantonio, hoping to build on a 9-4 second season with the Spartans, said he wouldn't hesitate to have the quarterbacks split time.
"We want to give both guys their opportunities," Dantonio said. "We don't want to switch quarterbacks every series. But if teams want to prepare for us that way, that's OK, too. If we'd allowed the quarterbacks to run today, you'd have seen even more big plays."
With no serious injuries, the only negative Dantonio saw was a lack of discipline that led to silly penalties, including an excessive-celebration call that forced a tying extra point from 35 yards by back-up kicker Dan Conroy.
Michigan State's running backs combined for just 73 yards on 40 carries, roughly half the output from departed All-American Javon Ringer in workhorse duty last season.
Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, Caulton Ray and A.J. Jimmerson didn't have a gain of more than 9 yards, with returning All-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones and emerging safety Trenton Robinson waiting to meet them.
"The running backs are talented," Dantonio said. "They'll have a chance to show their ability in the fall. But I don't think that we can play all four of them. And we have two new guys coming in, too."
In-state high school stars Edwin Baker and Larry Caper are expected to challenge for carries immediately.
The Spartans will open the season Sept. 5 against Montana State and will stay home to face Central Michigan the following Saturday. After visits to Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Michigan State will host Michigan on Oct. 3. The Spartans won't face Ohio State or Indiana in Big Ten play.