Oct. 10, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - By the midpoint of the college football season, teams should have moved on from expectations of proficiency to continuity and constancy.
However, the only thing passing for normalcy with the Michigan State offense through six games has been profound weekly change. And while flux may be a commonplace occurrence, it doesn't mean the Spartans have grown accustomed to a new normal.
"It's definitely new," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said with a droll laugh Wednesday. "I don't know that it's normal."
Only six players, or 50 percent, are listed in the same starting positions - MSU posts a 12-man lineup dependant on whether it comes out in a three-wide-receiver set or with a fullback - for Saturday's game against Iowa as they were for the opener versus Boise State.
In the intervening five weeks, the Spartans have lost right tackle Fou Fonoti, center Travis Jackson, fullback Niko Palazeti and tight end Dion Sims for part or all of the season to injury. Meantime, true freshman Aaron Burbridge beat veteran Bennie Fowler in a position battle at split end while Tony Lippett was moved from split end to slot receiver.
The picture becomes even more complex when looking back at the starting 11 Roushar put on the field in last week's come-from behind victory at Indiana.
Jack Allen, the regular left guard, opened instead at center and Blake Treadwell, who's working his way back from a preseason leg injury, was at left guard. Head coach Mark Dantonio switched Allen back to guard and inserted veteran Ethan Ruhland at center after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter.
Those questioning MSU's efficiency, or quarterback Andrew Maxwell's timing, need look only at the new faces in different places for an explanation.
"There no question," Roushar said when asked if the situation should be more settled at this point. "All of the sudden you have Aaron Burbridge emerge, and he's still learning as all these young guys are.
"You've lost a starting center and you've lost a starting right tackle and right now your tight end's got a significant ankle (injury), so a challenge presents itself every day for us to try to put our guys in positions to do what they can and execute at a high level."
After seeing Burbridge break out with eight catches for 134 yards against the Hoosiers, inquiring minds questioned where he was in games 1-5? What they didn't see was the process the offense went through before identifying Burbridge as a viable option.
"Certainly, it makes that position stronger when you see Aaron make plays," Roushar said. "He went up and got the ball and made some big plays, and that helps. We had seen him do those things, but now he's lining up correctly and we're able to do some things with him.
"The thing that probably hurt him as much as anything is he missed all of training camp (with an injury), and then really, about week 2, he was running scout team because that was his first week back to practice. That's where we started to see him and then in one-on-ones he started to emerge."
But while Burbridge may have solved one problem, another cropped up in the wide receiving corps.
"It shuffles how you align yourself," Roushar said. "Guys go from maybe playing the X to the inside receiver as Tony Lippett did a week ago and our feeling coming out of the game was that maybe Tony was slowed because he was at a different position. He wasn't as fast and as effective as he was the week before.
"But, you're trying to get your best guys on the field and again, that goes back to our challenge in terms of getting the right combination of guys who are making plays."
Lawrence Thomas is another case in point. A red-shirt freshman who played linebacker in high school but switched to defensive end in preseason camp, Thomas was considered too much of a talent to sit idly on the bench. So, Dantonio and Roushar moved him temporarily from a position of strength to one of need, fullback, so he could contribute as much as possible to team success.
But after Palazeti got banged up, Thomas, a converted defensive end, suddenly became the No. 1 option at fullback. There's even been talk this week of Thomas playing tight end if he can get up to speed quickly enough given the fact that No. 2 tight end Andrew Gleichert is nursing a wrist injury that will probably interfere with his pass-catching ability the rest of the season. Paul Lang, a red-shirt freshman, is scheduled to make his second career start.
Thomas has turned in some quality plays while embracing his role as a utility player.
"It's not really a big deal because I told Coach D I'll do anything he asks me to do and now I'm doing anything possible to help the team get wins," Thomas said. "Right now they need me at fullback, so I'll go ahead and do it. If they need me at tight end I'll do it.
"There are new faces, so we're just trying to see where we're at and trying to get the job done. We've all got to start somewhere. We're going through some adversity right now, but we're coming along real well. The next person just has to step up."
Nevertheless, too many stop-gap measures can combine for a net-negative cumulative effect.
After playing his best game of the season in the one-point loss to Ohio State, Maxwell got off to a rough start against Indiana before adjusting on the fly to finish with career-high completions (24), yards (290) and touchdown passes (two, for the second time).
"The whole thing is, we're trying to figure out which personnel grouping we have that's going to give us the best opportunity to win," Roushar said. "And as you start to move personnel groups around, you certainly have to factor in what can you do and what can you execute.
"Right now, that seems to be the biggest discussion we have."
Maxwell has been forced to deal with a fluid situation, especially with the offensive line which began the season with a wealth of depth and is now being stretched to its limit.
"We missed some things (at Indiana) very early on third down and first-down-wise that slowed down the way we got started," Roushar said. "But I thought he finished very strong and made some big throws as we needed him to.
"Part of it's all of the sudden we've got some different bodies out there. So much has changed around him dynamically. Losing three out of his front six guys I think has certainly had some impact (as has) the nature of what we've done at the wide receiver position, starting those guys and then all of the sudden we're saying we're not getting the performance and we shifted things around.
"I think all-in-all he's handled very well and he continues to make progress."
The best-case scenario is that the Spartans continue to win while weathering this period of instability.
"I think that's something that you have to be prepared for in this game," Maxwell said. "It's no secret that injuries happen. It's no secret that sometimes people lose their spots and people get shuffled around. When you've been playing the game as long as we have, that's something you grow accustomed to.
"You never hope for these things to happen or plan on these things happening, but everybody has been a part of a season where these things have happened and you have to adjust. So that's what we're in the process of doing right now."