Sept. 22, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State readily concedes that it is still an unfinished football team four games into the season.
In one respect, that's an anxiety-inducing admission given the fact the Big Ten grand opening is less than a week away and Ohio State will line up on the other side of the ball whether the Spartans are ready or not.
Michigan State cannot drop six more passes - as it did in the first half of its 23-7 come-from-behind victory over winless Eastern Michigan on Saturday afternoon in Spartan Stadium - miss routine field goals, muff punts and lose fumbles, and have a realistic shot at beating the Buckeyes.
The Spartans can't bank on Le'Veon Bell bashing the Ohio State defense for a career-high 253 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries, as he did against the Eagles lined up to stop him, or tight end Dion Sims getting free for a career-best 112 yards and a touchdown on six catches - all after halftime.
And as well as the MSU defense performed while shutting Eastern Michigan out for three quarters - the Eagles' only points came on a sudden-change 23-yard touchdown pass one play after a Spartan fumble - the Braxton Miller-led Buckeye offense is a high-powered outfit that entered the weekend leading the league with 40.7 points per game.
However, in another respect, the Spartans can see better than anybody what needs to be done to begin the defense of their Legends Division title, and that a structure capable of doing that has been roughed-in.
Now, they have to finish it.
"It's just a matter of making plays when they present themselves," said quarterback Andrew Maxwell, whose 16-for-29 and 159-yard passing day would have looked a lot better with six more completions. "We're just missing opportunities. The plays are there to be made. Whose fault it is is irrelevant. We're just not making plays and that's what we need to do.
"We felt ready and we were ready. It's a step here; it's a step there. It's a play here; it's a play there."
It's the detail work that makes the difference between a stunning debut and an opening that leaves patrons wondering what all the fuss was about.
The receiving corps came out of the Eastern Michigan game in need of the most fit-and-finish treatment.
The dropped passes, starting with the very first series, put MSU in such predictable down-and-distance circumstances; it found itself in a punting contest and trailed 7-3 at halftime.
"I don't think we made any progress at all (in the passing game)," said offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. "Right now, we are searching. I thought Keith Mumphery a week ago caught the ball very well and made plays for us. Then today, he starts with the first one coming off his chest and it starts to snowball a little that way.
"I thought the (receivers) had a really good week of practice. I was really watching our wide receivers and their effort was good, their routing expression was good and they caught the ball well. It just didn't transition into our play. We are reaching and we will continue to work. Until the fourth quarter, we didn't have anything going for us."
Whether the receivers' plight was contagious is debatable, but kicker Dan Conroy missed an opportunity to salvage a 3-0 lead later in the first quarter when he decelerated on a 39-yard field goal try that sailed wide right.
Then, a queasy feeling started to overtake Spartan Stadium in the second quarter when red-shirt junior wideout Bennie Fowler, who had already dropped one pass in the end zone, caught another, only to fumble it back to the Eagles, who immediately converted it into a touchdown.
Indications are that the message delivered by head coach Mark Dantonio and team leaders wasn't for the faint of heart, and to their credit, the Spartans responded with 20 unanswered points.
"In my estimation, players make plays," a clearly miffed Dantonio said. "Plays don't make players; players make plays. And so we need to be more consistent in what we're doing and execute better. And that's basically all around for our football team.
"That's the message that was delivered at halftime. We played better in the second half. We need to bring our emotion every day. The emotion was not there in the first half, and consequently we were flat."
What's so baffling is that Dantonio isn't asking the Spartans to do anything they haven't already shown they can do either in games, practice or throughout their careers.
They were emotionally stoked for the 17-13 victory over Boise State in the opener. Conroy missed from 30-39 yards for the second time this season, but only third time in 14 career tries from that distance before making two 35-yarders later in the game against EMU. He went 14-for-15 overall in 2010.
The receivers have made tougher catches than what would have been required against the Eagles. The solution is so simple, it almost defies explanation.
"What you've got to do to improve is catch the ball," Dantonio said. "I mean, throw and catch. Throw and catch. You know, there's nothing wrong with the route. The route's there. The ball is thrown there; you've got to catch the football. And I hate to lay it out there like that, but that's just the way it is."
If the Spartans can point to anything, it's that they won the hard way. Even though the Eagles loaded up the line of scrimmage with eight or nine defenders to stop the run, Bell personally outrushed them by 207 yards.
"I just feel like we weren't executing to our ability," Bell said. "The plays were there for guys to make plays, and all the plays we make in practice, we weren't making them today. We've got talented players on the outside, and those guys just got to make plays."
It doesn't matter how a thing gets finished, as long as it does. Perhaps it was more important at this point for MSU to get some things squared away in the team-building and identity departments.
"The sign of a good team is when you don't play your best and you start slow, and you have to dig deep and you've got to fight one out," Maxwell said. "It doesn't matter who the opponent is, it doesn't matter the situation. When you're down and you have to come together as an offense, and you have to come together as a team and trust each other and fight one out, you're going to come together as a team."
The defense and rushing attack have earned that trust. Now, it's up to a young receiver corps to do its job.
"We're still a work in progress, but we've got those four non-conference games out of the way and we've been up and down," Fowler said. "The only thing not working in the passing game right now is us not finishing plays. Once we finish those plays, we'll get the results we want."
Nevertheless, the time to add those all-important finishing touches grows shorter and shorter.