Sept. 19, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ If dropped passes can be infectious, catching the ball should be contagious, according to Michigan State sophomore wideout Aaron Burbridge.
The Spartan receivers will see if Burbridge's theory holds water, and they onto the ball, at Notre Dame on Saturday.
Plagued by inconsistency all last season and through the early goings this year, the wideouts had a breakout performance with 16 catches in last week's 55-17 victory against Youngstown State. Only an extremely tough grader would have marked them down with a drop.
Sophomore Macgarrett Kings Jr. spurred the recovery with four catches for 61 yards and a 24-yard touchdown reception.
"We feed off of each other," said Burbridge, who had three receptions for 44 yards. "When Macgarrett makes a big play somebody else is going to come back and make a big play. Same thing with everybody else.
"We knew we could make plays. It was just a matter of time that it all clicked, but it happened. We got some confidence. No question about it."
Kings and Burbridge lead MSU in receiving with eight catches each for 99 and 80 yards, respectively. They have one touchdown between them.
"It's the young guys that have stepped up but then you look at Bennie Fowler (two for 39 and a touchdown) and Tony Lippett (four for 41) who also got a lot of quality reps and stepped up, as well," said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. "It's a confidence-builder for a quarterback to know that he's got a good group of receivers and guys are going to go up and make catches."
Quarterback Connor Cook is looking forward to an epidemic of receptions breaking out against the Fighting Irish.
"I just want to see our wideouts have a game like they did against Youngstown State," he said. "I would throw a simple hitch and guys would turn that into six (points). I threw a simple drag route and guys would catch it and run for another 30 yards.
"Notre Dame has a very talented secondary, and the coverage will be a little bit tighter, and my throws will have to be better, but I know our guys are capable of making plays."
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With the distractions of a highly publicized quarterback competition behind him, Cook is free to zero in on the task at hand in his second career start and first on the road.
"It's kind of like last week when (head coach Mark Dantonio) said this is my game to take over earlier in the week," Cook said. "It's the same mindset going into Notre Dame. It's our first away game, and in a hostile environment like that you've to be focused and locked-in every single second on every single play in practice.
"It definitely feels different just because we're playing an opponent like Notre Dame with the athletes they have on defense and the environment they have in South Bend. And I'm feeling different with the confidence level from the game we had last week with guys making plays on all sides of the ball.
"I just feel like a different player with my confidence level."
Michigan State's offensive line has given up just two sacks in three games. The Irish have sacked the quarterback just three times, but will try to collapse the pocket with the beefy tackle-end tandem of Louis Nix III (6-foot-3, 357 pounds) and Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 322).
Cook hopes to be able to use his maneuverability to his advantage.
"The offensive linemen have done a great job protecting me," Cook said. "Their defensive linemen are extremely quick and extremely big. This will be a test for our offensive linemen. I have confidence in them, but if I do get pressure I'll run and do whatever I possibly can to make plays."
Warner said Cook's even-keeled demeanor should serve him well at one the most tradition-laden venues in America.
"He did a good job of taking charge (against Youngstown State) and being confident and relaxed in the huddle," Warner said. "His first trip on the road as a starter in that stadium is obviously going to be a bigger challenge, but I think Connor, for the most part, is a pretty relaxed guy and hopefully, he's able to build off last week."
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson hurt MSU with his scrambling last year, but he isn't on the team this season. Nevertheless, pocket-passer Tommy Rees poses a different sort challenge to the Spartan defense with his ability to read defenses and change plays just before the snap.
"There's give and take," said Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "They had a more athletic quarterback a year ago and now they have a quarterback that maybe mentally can get them in better plays. You see it on tape. There's a lot of checking, with one second to go, to get them in a perfect play. That's to their advantage if they can do that.
"It's a big chess match. They got the (play) clock and it's a lot easier to check on offense than it is on defense. You have one guy out of place on defense and it's a problem. They can have one receiver who thought it was a run and starts blocking and three receivers run a route and still have a chance, where it'd be fatal for us."
Fortunately, Narduzzi has veteran middle linebacker Max Bullough directing MSU's countermeasures.
"You're in a nasty environment and you have to make sure that corner gets (the call) too," Narduzzi said. "We've just got to all be on the same page when we're switching stuff."
No Spartan receiver has been more efficient than walk-on fullback Trevon Pendleton, whose only career catch, so far, went for 12 yards and a touchdown against Youngstown State.
"I've always been taught to act like you've been there before," said Pendleton, who looked unsure of what to do after grabbing Cook's pass in the end zone. "My parents wouldn't have been very happy with me if I would have celebrated. Even though it felt really good I didn't want to pull out anything too crazy, and really, there wasn't anyone close to celebrate with.
"I played as a featured tailback in high school, so I got the ball plenty of times. I know it's within my ability."