April 27, 2010
Spring football is an opportunity for teams to grow. Away from the spotlight, 15 practices, no opponent to prepare for. In the spring, it's all about fundamentals, and more specifically, improvement.
At the onset of spring practice, fourth-year head coach Mark Dantonio challenged his players to get 2 percent better every day. From all indications, he is pleased with his team's performance during the spring, calling it "one of the most productive" in his time at the helm of the program.
"I think it was a great spring for us - the chemistry is good, the leadership is good," Dantonio said. "I think guys feel good about themselves and feel good about their progress, and we've worked them hard."
Dantonio knows how critical spring practice is to the development of the team, but that hasn't stopped him from taking a unique approach to the Green-White game. Instead of a modified-scoring, scrimmage approach, where the first-team offense plays the first-team defense, the second team plays the second team, and on down the line, Dantonio wants to create as much of a game-like atmosphere as possible.
So teams are drafted by the players and split evenly, creating a source for competition. And pride isn't the only thing on the line, as there's the added motivation for the winners to eat steak at an upcoming team meal. For the losers, franks and beans.
It's obvious the fans appreciate Dantonio's philosophy toward the game. An estimated crowd of 30,000 attended Spartan Stadium last Saturday, the largest spring game crowd of Dantonio's tenure.
In the short term, the game itself was another entertaining affair, going down to the wire for the third straight year as the Green held off the White, 17-10.
In the more important long-term picture, it provided a glimpse into the possibilities for 2010 - an arsenal of fast, dangerous weapons on offense, and a deep group of hard-hitting playmakers on defense.
Offensively, Kirk Cousins has established himself as the undisputed leader. He was remarkably efficient, completing 10 of his 15 passes for 254 yards - an average of more than 25 yards per completion.
"I think that every year you go out on the field and prove yourself as a player then you have a little more authority to say," said Cousins when asked about his role as a leader. "As a backup, or a reserve, or a young player, you just can't have that authority. I think that just comes with the territory, and comes as you're here longer and become a veteran player you have more opportunities to speak your piece. That's what I've tried to do, and we'll continue to try to do that as we move forward."
"From a mental standpoint, he has always been a hard worker," said quarterbacks coach Dave Warner, who served as the head coach for the White team but was intently watching Cousins throughout the day. "But I think now that he is established, he feels more comfortable in the leadership role. He is not afraid to step on people's toes and lead this football team. I think that is a great improvement. And on the football field, he just continues to work to find a way. He is always asking me what he can do to continue to get better and to become an elite quarterback. We are happy that he is here, and we think he is just going to keep getting better and better."
Cousins' longest toss of the day was a perfect 58-yard play-action pass to Mark Dell, a well-executed play that not only fooled the defense, but nearly everyone in Spartan Stadium. Faking a handoff to Le'Veon Bell up the middle, then to B.J. Cunningham as he streaked to the outside, Cousins calmly stood in the backfield before firing his strike to Dell, who made as equally an impressive play on the other end. Dell finished with a game-high 133 receiving yards on four catches.
The long reception set up the Green team's first touchdown of the day early in the second quarter, as three plays later, Cousins scrambled and found Cunningham at the 10-yard line. Cunningham then proceeded to elude two tacklers before leaping in for the score.
"They (wide receivers) did a phenomenal job," said Cousins. "I can't say enough good things about the guys we had to throw the ball to. We have plenty of guys who can make plays for us."
The Cousins-to-Cunningham TD was the only score of the first half, but the strong defensive effort was perhaps the most encouraging aspect for Spartan fans. There were sacks, quarterback hurries, pass break-ups and forced fumbles.
"Defensively we played hard; we played well on third down and stopped the run more effectively," said Dantonio following the game at his post-game news conference. "I thought we played aggressive down the field."
One such play arrived late in the first quarter. Following a 31-yard run by early enrollee Nick Hill - the longest rush of the day - safety Jairus Jones stripped the ball and it was eventually covered by sophomore cornerback Johnny Adams. Adams also had two sacks (13 yards) and four tackles. He will enter fall camp as one of the starting cornerbacks.
"Not playing last year was a humbling experience," said Adams, who sat out last season as a redshirt after playing in 12 games his freshman year. "Being able to get out there and play in the spring game, it kind of gave me a little chill, so I'm ready for next season."
The offense picked up in the second half, especially in the fast-paced fourth quarter. Kevin Muma's 19-yard field goal late in third made it 10-0 in favor of the Green, but the White responded with its own field goal, a 31-yarder by Dan Conroy, with 8:08 left in the game.
On the ensuing possession, Cousins directed a quick four-play, 70-yard TD drive for the Green, fueled by a 37-yard completion to tight end Dion Sims and a 27-yard pass to Dell. Hill capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run at the 6:30 mark, putting the Green up, 17-3.
But the White wouldn't go down without a fight.
Led by red-shirt freshman quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who finished the game 18-of-34 passing for 244 yards, the White covered 75 yards on 11 plays before finally scoring its first touchdown of the day on a 17-yard screen pass from Maxwell to Edwin Baker. The touchdown was made possible by some nifty moves from Baker, who made several defenders miss as he exploded up the sideline and into the end zone.
"Andrew Maxwell has had a very good spring," said Warner. "We have a lot of confidence in him, the only thing he is lacking is experience, so hopefully, we get the opportunity to get him that experience and grow as a quarterback."
Needing a stop to have a chance, the White forced a Green three-and-out and got the ball back on its own 32-yard line with 56 seconds remaining in the game and an opportunity to win.
It was the perfect, pressure-packed scenario Dantonio wanted for his players. For the offense, drive the field in a two-minute drill in a clutch situation. For the defense, make a key stop to get the victory.
"I'm fine with it being on our shoulders," All-America linebacker Greg Jones said of the defense for the 2010 season. "I feel like we're going to come together like always and respond."
All of a sudden, the White team had the ball on the Green 28. Maxwell spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock and set up the offense, but after two straight incompletions, it was fourth-and-10, and just a few precious seconds remained on the clock.
Fittingly, the game came down to the final play.
Maxwell lined up under center and fired to his right, hitting Martin on an apparent screen pass. But Martin, a former high school quarterback, tossed the ball back to Maxwell on the other side of the field. Maxwell caught the pass - his first and possibly only one in his Spartan career - but was quickly chased down by senior linebacker Eric Gordon, who didn't bother with the policy of no hits on the quarterback, not with the first-down marker in sight and the game on the line. Gordon slammed Maxwell to the turf 4 yards shy of the first down, and that was that.
The Green had made a stop to win, 17-10. The defense came through.
While everyone's attention during last year's spring game was on the quarterback race and the 38-37 shootout, this year the defense stepped up and made several big plays in addition to Gordon's game-saving tackle.
Allen, Gardiner and Bullough teamed up for 18 tackles, including four for losses of 26 yards. Allen had seven tackles with two sacks and a pass break-up, while Gardiner also recorded seven tackles with 1.5 for losses to go along with a forced fumble. Bullough, an early enrollee, looked anything but in his first game in Spartan Stadium, chipping in four tackles and a pass break-up.
"I think defensively there were some good hits out there," said Dantonio. "I thought Chris L. Rucker, Johnny Adams, and Trenton Robinson all played well. Obviously, Greg Jones is always going to play very well.
"Both Max and Steve are highly motivated players, who work extremely hard off the field. These guys are going to be a presence on our football team. Greg is our guy in the middle, but linebackers have been a strength out there."
"I'm fine with it being on our shoulders," Jones said of the defense for the 2010 season. "I feel like we're going to come together like always and respond."
Regarding the play of Allen, linebackers/Green team head coach Mike Tressel said: "I was fired up about Denicos Allen, I really was. He played safety during the fall, so he started spring ball learning from square one. You teach in the spring like everyone's been there in the fall, but he wasn't. First couple days when he was limited in there, he did a good job, then he sort of hit a lull a little bit, but then he finished strong and I'm excited."
Even with the teams split during the spring game, the overall depth of the team was evident on both sides of the ball, especially at wide receiver.
"You look at the receiver spot, we were able to split into two teams and say that the White team, they have a good receiving corps with Keshawn (Martin) and (Keith) Nichol," said Tressel. "And then you say, `Oh Green. They have Dell and they have Cunningham, they have a good receiving corps. For the defense, going through 15 practices, we knew we had enough to break into two groups and have a good receiving corps on both sides."
Martin, a constant threat wherever he lines up, led all receivers with six catches for 109 yards, while Gantt had four receptions for 68 yards. Nichol added three catches for 43 yards for the White. In addition to Dell and Cunningham, Donald Spencer hauled in three receptions for 54 yards, and Sims had three catches for 53 yards for the Green.
"Even when we got a lot of tough losses last season," Cousins said, "I texted the receivers to say, `although we lost, it's fun to play with you guys because you're such great players and competitors.' Today, it was just a blast to play with them. They want to be great, and that's nice to work with, guys who want to be great."
Michigan State is looking for its successful spring to translate on the field during the upcoming 2010 season. The Spartans open fall camp on Aug. 8 in preparation for their first game, Sept. 4 against Western Michigan in Spartan Stadium.
"All in all, I thought we showed a better football team," Dantonio said. "I'm not sure statistically how it works out, but we've got a pretty good football team I think coming back. We're very optimistic about what we're doing, and got out of the spring game with no injuries, so that's a big positive. We'll look to move to August and we're very excited about that opportunity coming back with our new young players. We have the skill players, leadership and chemistry to compete for the Big Ten Championship in 2010."