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Grinz on Green: Fresh Start Awaits Spartans as Big Ten Season Opens

Connor Cook will start his first Big Ten game at quarterback on Saturday at Iowa.

Oct. 2, 2013

By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen

EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ The fear teams have about going from a tough loss into a bye week is that the time away from intensive game preparation will be spent wallowing in misery, doubt and despair.

If anyone could have benefitted from getting back up on the horse as soon as possible in the wake of Michigan State's 17-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21, it's cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who had yet another potential game-winning play wiped out by an official's flag, or two.

However, Dennard would have nothing to do with self-pity during MSU's down time.

Although he was grateful for the support he received for his in-your-face style of play from dumbfounded television analysts to sports pundits to outraged fans to Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly who called him "one of the best corners that we've gone against, and I've seen them all," it wasn't necessary.

The burden wasn't on the official, Dennard said. It was on him to not put the official in a position to make a game-changing decision.

Had he just done his job a little better, the flag for pass interference wouldn't have come out, his interception that would have stopped Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown drive would have stood, the momentum would have shifted to the Spartans and they'd be undefeated going into the Big Ten opener at Iowa.

"The refs made the calls they believe in and you have to respect them," Dennard said. "After the game, I was ticked off, mad, kind of down on myself knowing I could have made the plays that I made, but without some of the pushing and shoving.

"I know I'm a better player than that, and I have high goals for myself. Looking back on the game, I get very emotional, and mad and sad. Our coaches have said I should continue to play the way I played, but I've got to be smart enough to know to play the game the refs are calling. I put all the pressure on me."



Such revelations might not have come to Dennard had he not had the extra time to play the game in its entirety in his head and reflect on his actions.

"I don't blame (the official), I blame myself," he said. "At the end of the day, I've got to make plays. (The coaches) are going to put me in the best position to make plays, and I have enough confidence in myself to make them. I guess I've got to not touch (the receivers) as much, and just make the play on the ball.

"What you've got to understand is there's pushing and shoving on both sides of the ball. I guess you've got to be smart enough to know how they're going to call it. I guess I've got to communicate with them better and play the way they say I've got to play. I think I'm a good enough player to adjust."

It's a cautionary tale better realized sooner than at a pivotal moment in a Big Ten game. Whatever stubbornness Dennard and Trae Waynes, the Spartans' other corner who also was called for costly pass interference penalties, may have harbored, melted away during the off week.

"I think it was a good break," Dennard said. "Looking at the game against Notre Dame, we left a lot of plays on the field, but instead of taking the negatives out of it, we're going to take the positives. This past week, me and Trae have kind of been playing the same, but we've been a little less touchy down the field.

"We're still going to play our game. We're just going to be smarter."

For these players at this point of the season, the opportunity to take a step back and clear their heads should prove beneficial, said quarterback Connor Cook, who will make his first Big Ten start against the Hawkeyes.

"It was refreshing," Cook said. "We needed a weekend to get our minds off football a little bit and go back home and see our families. I feel all the guys are fresh going into Big Ten play. We're back here ready to work, and we're ready for Iowa."

Cook has put his first experience in a hostile environment behind him, and as much as Dennard and Waynes are tweaking their coverage tactics, he's been addressing issues that have detracted from his performance in his first three starts.

"I have to command more in the huddle and just be more accurate," said Cook, who is completing 53 percent of his passes. "That's just focusing on footwork, on ball-placement and putting the ball up, focusing on the release and stepping toward your target.

"Last week I worked on my footwork a lot more and that's really helping out this week."

The urgency to solve problems, such as not taking advantage of scoring opportunities and failing to advance precious drives with explosive plays, unfolded within the context of patience and calmness afforded by the bye week.

"It had a little training-camp feel to it," Cook said. "When the play's there, we've got to make it, and when the throw's there, I've got to make it. We're getting things going, we're improving every week and we're fine-tuning our red-zone offense."

It's unusual for a 3-1 team to talk about fighting its way off the ropes and getting into the corner to regroup before the next round. However, while MSU's nationally prominent defense is riding a wave of momentum into the Big Ten schedule, the offense is still trying to catch up, and it feels like time is running short.

Senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti senses the offense is on the verge of breaking out, but he's felt that way since the first practice.

"Last week was bittersweet because it's tough going through a bye week with the taste of a loss in your mouth," Fonoti said. "But it also came at the perfect time because it gave us a chance to re-gather, get a breath of fresh air and realize all our goals are still ahead of us.

"The defense is definitely playing well and our hats are off to them. On offense, we've got to do better, and that starts with me."

Outside observers with limited knowledge aren't the only ones vociferously pointing out areas the Spartans obviously need to improve.

"It's definitely a verbal thing with us," Fonoti said. "We see the things we lack and just continue to encourage each other because we need everyone on offense working together to reach that common goal. It's something we express daily to each other.

"We've gone through these four games, we know what we can do, and we know what we have to work on. We see in our past games where we were just inches away from that huge play."

A week's worth of self-awareness and introspection can only take MSU so far before it gives way to frustration, Fonoti admitted. The time to act is now.

"The opportunity is there on Saturday," he said. "We just have to do a better job of getting the explosive plays that are going to spark even bigger plays.

"It's right there."

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