Oct. 12, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The most popular player on a struggling football team is said to be the back-up quarterback. But inexperienced players - especially hotshot true freshmen - no one has ever seen run a play in the heat of big-time college battle, are a close second.
"Put So-and-so in," chant the fans. "Such-and-such has to be better."
It's a point of view that drives coaches, who spend most waking moments evaluating members of their team, to distraction.
And, it was underscored for Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff in Saturday's 42-28 victory against Indiana to break a four-game Big Ten home losing streak.
Less experienced players and outright newbies contributed significantly to the cause.
Junior running back Jeremy Langford had nine career rushes before this season and a total of just 81 before breaking out for 109 yards on 23 carries against the Hoosiers. He also rushed for three touchdowns and had one receiving.
Delton Williams, a true freshman who was slated to redshirt before making his debut a week earlier at Iowa, rushed for 92 yards on 12 carries and had a long-gainer of 37 yards. Another true freshman, flanker R.J. Shelton, scored on a 34-yard run.
Red-shirt sophomore quarterback Connor Cook had arguably his best game as a Spartan. Although he didn't establish career-highs for attempts (31), completions (22), yards (235) or even touchdown passes (two), his completion rate soared to 71 percent after efforts of 56.8, 50.0, 68.2, 54.5 and 37.5 in the first five games.
It wasn't a matter of MSU missing the boat on a cadre of talented youngsters along, Dantonio said. Rather, it was a representation of where they, and other young players who showed well against Indiana, are in the maturation process.
"We've got different guys making plays, and that's what's so exciting to me," Dantonio said. "Young players sort of transitioning into playmakers for us, and that's the thing that I felt would happen.
"I just feel that the more you do, the more confident you become and confidence breeds success. And if you're not being successful, you're going to start having some self-doubt. But if you are successful, confidence is going to grow, especially in a young player where there's a large learning curve. Connor Cook has a large learning curve because he's playing for the third or fourth time."
To expect an untested player, especially one in his first season, to be able to produce at a winning level in the Big Ten is generally unrealistic, and no one illustrated that better than tight end Josiah Price.
In the third quarter, Cook hit a wide-open Price down the middle for a 39-yard gain to the Hoosier 5-yard line. Two plays later, Langford ran for a 2-yard touchdown to increase MSU's lead to 28-14.
Earlier in the season, Price, of Greentown, Ind., would have just been happy to make the catch without looking foolish even though as a red-shirt freshman he has more than a year of experience in the program.
This time, he said he was "frustrated" over not scoring against his home-state team.
"I think a lot of us, including myself, are finally getting our feet wet and getting experience," he said. "As for me, the first few games I was super-nervous. It's your first time ever being out there playing in Spartan Stadium, and then going to Notre Dame was a huge experience for me.
"So yeah, I feel our confidence has grown the more we've been out there. You saw Delton Williams today play really well after getting a little experience last week. R.J. Shelton got his feet wet here and there, and today you saw him make a big play. The young guys are finally starting to catch rhythm and feel what it takes to be successful."
Price came into the game with four catches for 32 yards, so it wasn't like he didn't know what to do. But knowing and doing are two different things.
"I definitely think it takes a lot of getting used to," he said. "Experience does play a big role in things. You can tell a big difference between a fifth-year senior and a red-shirt freshman.
"We might have good athletes who are younger, but as far as knowing the game, and knowing what it takes to be successful, and not freaking out when a blitz comes his way, and being able to weather the storms when the D-line is going to shift and the coverage is going to change, you're going to have a guy tight on you man-to-man..."
Price then snapped his fingers.
"There are all kinds of different aspects to be able to play fast, and what to think and how to react and what to do in certain situations comes with experience," he said. "I definitely think I'm starting to grow in that area.
"There's still definitely room for improvement. I just played in my sixth game of college football. I'm starting to catch on, and all the younger guys are starting to see what it takes. But we aren't there. I think we can really explode off this game."
If Michigan State can continue to mature at its current rate, Dantonio sees the potential for growing into a legitimate contender.
"We can continue to get better, and that's the exciting thing," he said.