Sept. 14, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The storm clouds finally cleared away from Spartan Stadium.
After two weeks of delays, both literal and figurative, Michigan State responded to a team-wide call to play with a sense of urgency and the result was a 55-17 win against Youngstown State Saturday afternoon.
The collective sigh of relief wasn't rooted in dominating a Football Championship Subdivision opponent the way a Big Ten team is supposed to, or having the quarterback competition settled in favor of Connor Cook heading into Notre Dame next Saturday.
Rather, the Spartans' satisfaction came in knowing they can do it the right way, from catching passes to converting on third down to committing just two penalties, and doing it with toughness.
Not much else was asked of the team by head coach Mark Dantonio throughout the week in practice.
"You don't want to say we threw the X's and O's out, but go out there and compete, be ready to go and be the toughest guy out there," said sophomore center Jack Allen, who started in place of the injured Travis Jackson. "I thought (Dantonio) pushed us in the right direction and had us have a good Thursday practice coming into this game.
"He's pretty strict most of the time, but he was a little stricter."
Knowing that the only way he was coming out was if MSU was in total control of the game, Cook settled into a comfort zone. He completed 15-of-22 passes 202 yards, four touchdowns and a long-gainer of 26 yards - all career-highs.
Afterward, Dantonio declared Cook Michigan State's No. 1 quarterback until further notice.
"The last couple games, it was just kind of hard to find a rhythm when you're working with two other QBs or another QB," Cook said. "Throwing my first touchdown pass in Spartan Stadium, I had all these emotions going. Relief, happiness, my adrenaline was going.
"It's reassuring, especially going into South Bend next week against a great opponent. To go in there with the stuff we did today offensively with the wideouts, the running backs running the ball and the QBs making plays, it's just a great feeling."
With 547 yards of total offense, MSU amassed nearly as many yards against the Penguins as it did with a combined 562 in the first two games. The Spartans entered the game with two offensive touchdowns and came out with seven more for a more respectable three-per-game average.
The defense didn't score for the first time in three games, but getting the ball back to a suddenly potent offense on 10 of 12 Youngstown State third-down situations was the next best thing. The Spartans allowed just 51 rushing yards and only 172 yards of total offense.
"I thought we had a sense of urgency," Dantonio said. "I thought we needed to play offensively because we had not performed to the level I think we're capable of. We asked our guys to play within themselves and compete. I think that's what you do as a football player. You're always trying to look at yourself and say: How hard can you play? Can you make plays and can you play with confidence?'
"I think we did that."
While the offensive line gave Cook plenty of time to operate, he came out of the heavily scrutinized, and somewhat criticized, quarterback battle with great competitive sinew.
"He didn't get hit very often and he's going to get hit some," Dantonio said. "But he's always been pretty resilient and I think that's a positive thing. I think he showed where he's at. I think he had 191 (passing yards) at halftime, which is a positive, and he only played one more series after that.
"I thought he played well. He ran the ball effectively, made good checks at the line of scrimmage. What he's been lacking is long-term game experience, which he got today. We made the difficult catch; we threw the ball with confidence. I don't care who you're playing against, the fact we had explosive plays gives you and indication we grew up a little bit, caught fire a little bit and provided the spark that hopefully ignited our offense."
As a whole, the Spartans got a lot better just in the nick of time.
Special teams set up Michigan State's first score with a 23-yard punt return by Andre Sims Jr. and a 15-yard facemask penalty by Youngstown State. The drive only covered 24 yards, the final 3 of which were provided by running back Jeremy Langford.
But then, the milestones the Spartans should have reached in the first two games finally started to whiz by. Their first passing touchdown came later in the first quarter on a nifty 13-yard pass from Cook to Sims.
Their longest scoring drive of the season started with 5:56 remaining in the first quarter and ended 73 yards, 11 plays and 4:52 later on a 12-yard pass to fullback Trevon Pendleton for a 21-3 advantage. In the second quarter, after defensive end Shilique Calhoun recovered the first fumble he didn't return for a touchdown, Cook threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to wideout Macgarrett Kings Jr. for MSU's second-longest play of the season.
Cook then tied Michigan State's long-gainer on its next offensive play, a 26-yard pass to wideout Aaron Burbridge to set up Bennie Fowler's 17-yard, tackle eluding touchdown catch for a 35-10 halftime lead. Running back Nick Hill's 35-yard touchdown run gave Michigan State a 42-10 in the third quarter and its best explosive play, to date.
However, although a productive showing against a FCS team is eminently more reassuring than a difficult, last-second win would have been distressing, MSU's chance to establish its identity will come against the Fighting Irish.
"This was a building game and a key game for us because it's going to give us confidence and swagger for next game," said defensive tackle Tyler Hoover. "The fact the offense could rally and be excited and be hyped was really important for us.
"On defense, I think we did basically everything the same. We did bring up toughness and mental toughness because that's how we're going to get things done. Identity is always going to build. We're always looking to grow and we really want to be tough. That was the biggest point of emphasis this week - just really having an attitude."