Defense Dominates Again; Offense Continues To Search For Its Identity
Sep 7, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The most pressing questions Michigan State brought with it into Saturday's game against South Florida weren't necessarily answered with a 21-6 victory in Spartan Stadium.
Who's going to be the quarterback? Why not this guy? Why not that guy? Why doesn't MSU try this, that, or the other thing on offense?
Head coach Mark Dantonio flipped over a few more cards when he gave third-year sophomore Connor Cook his first start at quarterback and red-shirt freshman Tyler O'Connor his first game action as a Spartan behind center.
The results are out there for those who think they know something Dantonio and his staff don't are out there for all to judge:
One offensive touchdown for the second game in a row, fewer than 100 yards passing for the first time since who knows when, and even more questions that will always be easier to ask than they are to answer.
Cook completed 6-of-11 passes for 32 yards and rushed for 10 yards on nine carries. He also was at the controls during Michigan State's only scoring drive, which covered 33 yards after a 15-yard Bulls' punt in the third quarter. Cook kept the drive alive with a 2-yard plunge on fourth-and-1 at the 24-yard line.
O'Connor went 2-for-4 for 22 yards and had some success moving the offense. However, he spent the rest of the game on the sideline after forcing a pass that was nearly intercepted in the end zone in the second quarter.
Fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell, whose string of consecutive starts ended at 14, made his first appearance in the second half and completed 4-of-9 throws for 40 yards.
The offense actually scored enough points to win, but only because the first defense still hasn't given up a touchdown and it doubled its scoring output with two more Shilique Calhoun touchdowns - one of 4 yards on a fumble return in the second quarter and the other on a 56-yard interception runback in the third.
As much as Calhoun, with three touchdowns already, wouldn't mind maintaining his current pace to lead the Spartans in scoring all season long, Dantonio expressed a much more realistic appraisal of the situation.
"You know, I don't think it's any clearer," Dantonio said about the offense's issues, especially at quarterback. "We scored one touchdown today. I can come in here and be politically correct, or I can just tell you as it is.
"I think more people would rather hear me tell it as it is. We need to generate points. We've had opportunities. We need to work it. We beat ourselves a couple times. We have to let it play out."
Dantonio even took it a feisty step further by answering a question he knows is being asked just beyond earshot, and before it could be raised by the media.
Yes, he considered playing true freshman Damion Terry, who had an impressive showing during a preseason scrimmage, until circumstances dictated otherwise.
"We did not play Damion Terry," Dantonio said. "I know everybody keeps chanting that out there. He had strep throat this week and we had to check him for mono. Then he popped his thumb out of place, so it was bruised. He didn't take any reps all week. That's why we didn't play him. You needed an injury report, that's what you got.
"So everybody's on the same page here, we're on the same page."
Will Terry make his debut against Youngstown State next Saturday?
It's safe to say no options that could possibly lead to wins have been ruled out.
What is clear is no reasonable answer will be ignored, and everyone on the team is on notice.
"We'll evaluate everybody's play and what they bring," Dantonio said. "The bottom line is we won the football game. The second bottom line is whoever is in positions of leadership, running that football team, has to generate the throw and the catch. We've got to have more passing game than we have right now. It's pretty simple. I don't think you have to be an expert to dissect that.
"There's a sense of urgency because we want to be the best. I think we have a championship defense and I think we can do things on special teams at a championship level. We have to raise our performance on offense because we're not shooting for 7-6."
So that was Dantonio's manifesto going forward on a day of frank self-evaluation.
"Passing? Not good," Cook said in reference to his own performance. "Running? I thought I did a decent job of running. I just have to be more accurate with my throws and I think everything will take care of itself. We haven't even touched our potential. We have the athletes and we're gonna use them the right way. It's a work in progress, and this is just the beginning for our offense.
"We're getting better each and every week, and as long as we continue to get better, I think we'll be ready by Big Ten play. I don't think there's any audition. I know with me, every time I get an opportunity I'm just doing whatever I can to help this team win, and I know the other QBs are doing the same thing."
O'Connor wasn't surprised his playing time ended abruptly.
"Not really," he said. "I made a poor decision in the red zone and truthfully, I don't know if that pulled the confidence of the coaches in me. I would have liked another shot at it, but the whole point is to put points on the scoreboard. I didn't do that, so it's rightfully up to other people to get a chance.
"For the most part we moved the ball, but the red zone is where quarterbacks are judged. In the end, I didn't do my job."
Maxwell, who took no snaps with the first or second offenses during the week so O'Connor and Cook could get up to speed, tried to make the best of a tough situation.
"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," Maxwell said. "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."
Dantonio said he doesn't have a firm deadline in place for moving key positions out of committee, but junior running back Nick Hill, who led the Spartans with a career-best 63 yards on nine carries, is convinced the offense will be better when position battles are settled once and for all.
"Each and every game is an evaluation," Hill said. "I'm kind of not (shocked by the offense's fits and starts) because there were a lot of questions going into the running-back situation and the quarterback situation. But I think we're coming along, pretty well.
"When you keep rotating a lot of players at the running back and quarterback positions, rhythms are off. It's all about timing. Going into the Big Ten season, it's going to be more and more important because it's kind of hard to keep rotating guys in and out. As we keep reducing, we'll be OK. I don't see anything concerning with our offense."
And there won't be if the Spartans get things right, even if it is just in the nick of time.
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