Sep 5, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Another time, another Michigan State team, and the Spartans would have been satisfied with a flawed season-opening victory against Western Michigan.
The fact MSU is grateful to not be mourning a season-opening loss this week, while at the same time kicking itself for not playing better is an indication of how far it has come and the lofty aspirations it has, according to senior middle linebacker and tri-captain Max Bullough.
"We want to be considered one of the best, we think we are in the argument for being one of the elite teams in the country and we're trying to go out and prove that this year," he said. "We've been trying to prove that for the last four years, but to do that, and to be that and to be considered that, we need to go out there and perform better than what we did on Friday.
"So, we understand that and that's what we're moving forward to."
And this is from a member of the defense that forced four turnovers, including two that directly resulted in touchdowns, and held the Broncos to 11 rushing yards. Fifty-six of Western Michigan's 204 yards came on its final drive of the game against MSU's backups.
"I thought we played with energy," Bullough said. "Guys were getting after it and guys were aggressive. We didn't necessarily do a whole lot in terms of schemes, but that just leaves the playbook open for the season. Guys were having fun; we had momentum early and kept it.
"Unfortunately, (WMU) went down and scored on us, which is something we would have liked to have prevented. I know (the No. 2 defense) would have."
While the defense earned a strong passing grade, the offense fell well short of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner's expectations.
"We put a lot of emphasis over the past few months, certainly, on scoring points and how to get there through big plays and through red-zone opportunities and we had those," he said. "We had opportunities for big plays and didn't make them. The defense played very well and gave us the ball on the plus-side of the field numerous times, and we just didn't take advantage of it.
"There's always good teaching when you make mistakes, but it's not the best way to do it from a win-loss and putting-points-on-the-board type of deal. But yeah, you learn from it and I think guys realize from watching film that we weren't what we expected to be out there."
The passing attack is the chief area of concern with only a 45.9-percent completion rate, just 116 yards and another batch of dropped passes by the receivers going into Saturday's game against South Florida.
"Yes, I was surprised because I wasn't lying when I said we weren't dropping the ball and we were throwing the ball fairly well during camp," Warner said. "And, we were doing it against our own defense a lot, which is a very good defense and excellent secondary."
At this point, Warner said the quarterback situation is a "continuation" of last week when first-game starter Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook shared the duties. A decision on how the quarterback tasks will be handled against the Bulls will be determined later in the week.
What always upbeat center Travis Jackson is confident about is the offense being even more dialed-in to address its issues.
"It's very disappointing for an offense when you don't come out and perform like you want to," Jackson said. "I think our biggest improvement will be from Week 1 to Week 2. We do strive for excellence here, so even though you come out with the win, if you don't perform the way you want to, you're always going to be upset with that.
"The most important part is how you overcome it. When you go back and look at the film, you see effort and toughness, and things you can fix. It'd be a little more scary if you're like, `We can't fix this.'"
The Spartans players and coaches universally said they'd be playing with a chip on their shoulder because of how last season turned out with a 7-6 record. The way they played against Western Michigan not only didn't reduce the size of the chip, it may have made it bigger.
"That's the crazy thing around here," said outside linebacker Jairus Jones. "The mentality is changing - we get a win, but it's not good enough. To be an elite program, that's the mentality we have to have to strive for a higher level."
GoG Notes & Quotes:
Spend 30 seconds talking to defensive end Shilique Calhoun, and you realize this is a person with a high-speed processor in his brain. To wit, here's what was going through his mind during the three or four seconds it took for him to return a fumble 16 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Broncos.
"The first thing that hit my mind was, `You've got to pick it up, this is you, no one else should get this ball, you're right there, it's not far at all, put your hands down and scoop it up,'" Calhoun said. "The second thing on my mind once I finally got the ball and I was close to the end zone was like, `Dive.' Then I was like, `No, don't dive.'
"Just for a second, this conversation took place in my head. It was like, `No, why would you dive, they're going to call it back. Just get in the end zone.' I'm happy I didn't dive because I would have hated for the play to be called back for being selfish."
Jones, a Tampa native, won't be renewing acquaintances with friends, former teammates or high school rivals who play for South Florida, which is located in his hometown.
"They've all graduated and are all gone now," said the fifth-year senior.
"That's him wanting to be a really good football player," said defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett. "That's why he is who he is, and that's what really good football players do. They're harder on themselves than even the coaches or anybody else. He didn't play terrible, but for him and his standards (it wasn't acceptable), which I think is awesome.
"There were some technique things he felt could have been sharper, and I felt like they could have been sharper, as well, because he's been sharp at doing those things. You've got to know his mind-set. It's always to improve and get better. He'll continue to improve and keep getting better."
Despite the shuffling of personnel due to injuries, the offensive line opened up holes for a healthy 4.3 yards per carry even though the Broncos stacked the line to stop the run, and allowed just one quarterback sack.
"The offensive line, overall, played well for as much as we've had to mix and match," Warner said. "They protected the quarterback fairly well, but it's just going to keep getting tougher and tougher so we have to keep moving forward.
Fifth-year senior guard and co-captain Blake Treadwell recorded 7.5 pancake blocks.
"Treddy played very well," Warner said. "It was one of our better performances from an offensive line standpoint."
The Spartans can expect to see more eight-man defensive fronts until the passing attack becomes more productive.
"Until we get them out of there with the threat of our pass game, they're going to be there," Warner said.