Oct. 16, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's production line has been quietly improving offensive proficiency, and the workers want to keep it that way.
"That's how I like it," said sophomore center Jack Allen. "I feel like we're more of an underdog and that's the way I like to approach everything."
Added fifth-year senior right guard Dan France, "If you're not being noticed, it must mean you're doing a pretty good job."
Last season, MSU's injury-riddled O-line was the subject of weekly updates and critiques as position coach Mark Staten tried to keep it operational with six different starting lineups and countless switches and combinations in 13 games.
Le'Veon Bell led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,793 yards, the second-most in school history, but the Spartans were a disappointing eighth in rushing and ninth in total offense.
After some mixing and matching in the first four games, Staten has settled on the lineup that has helped MSU get off to a 2-0 start in conference play: Allen, with France and senior tackle Fou Fonoti to his right and senior guard Blake Treadwell and redshirt freshman tackle Jack Conklin to his left.
In addition, junior backup center Travis Jackson has 17 career starts, including the first two games of this season while Allen recovered from turf toe, and sophomore Donavan Clark started the first four games at left tackle. Throw in backup center/guard Connor Kruse, and MSU has eight linemen who have played more than 100 snaps.
Since coming out of the non-conference portion of the schedule ranked 11th in the league in total offense, passing offense and scoring, and 10th in rushing, Michigan State is showing signs of improvement.
While their rushing average remained virtually the same at 186.8 yards per game, the Spartans' ground attack is ranked seventh in the Big Ten this week. They moved up one notch in total offense, to 10th, but output is up 34 yards to 374.7 per game.
Furthermore, in last week's 42-28 victory against Indiana, MSU fell just 8 yards short of producing two 100-yard rushers in the same game since Bell churned out 141 and Edwin Baker produced 117 against Western Michigan in 2010.
Junior tailback Jeremy Langford reached the century mark for the first time in his career with 109 yards and three touchdowns - in addition to one receiving - on 23 carries against the Hoosiers, and true freshman Delton Williams added 92 yards on 12 carries.
Because of experience, the offensive line was listed as one of Michigan State's strengths coming into the season. Although the line is living up to expectations, Staten isn't taking anything for granted.
"It's always stressful," he said. "As a coach, you're always looking to be a little bit better. So, I sometimes tell the guys I'm sorry for being a little bit negative because sometimes I'm more focused on that than what they're doing great.
"I push myself to try to push them in a positive fashion because you only know about them when they mess up. It's the only time you hear about a lineman unless they make a block out in the open. I just think there's a lot of pride in that group and it's selfless. They want others to succeed, and because of that, we're able to roll out a whole different offensive line in the fourth series of last game."
The no-news-is-good-news component of the offensive line has had a spin-off effect. Stability and familiarity in that department has contributed to Connor Cook's development as the starting quarterback, significant advancements by the receiving corps and a potential upgrade by the rushing attack.
"It goes with the whole crew improving," said co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. "It's easy to say that Connor's really helped, and he has, and he's really improving. But a lot of the guys are improving. You can go all the away across the board, the receivers, the running backs, the offensive line giving everybody a chance to do their job."
The difference between forcing a lineman into a position, which was the case much of last season, and fitting him into his natural spot can be dramatic.
After starting the last two seasons at left tackle, out of necessity, the 6-foot-6, 312-pound France is flourishing at right guard. He established a career-high with eight knockdowns against Notre Dame, which he matched against Indiana, and leads the team with 35, one short of his total from last season.
"I feel very comfortable," France said. "There's just less area to cover. The (inside defensive) guys are bigger, which makes it harder, but at the same time I think it's a better fit for my body-type for guard instead of tackle.
"We've been very consistent with our O-line play. We've got a lot of experience and the younger guys are getting experience for next year. Last year was unfortunate. We had Fou and Travis out, Tready was out for a little bit and I was out for a game. It was kind of like musical chairs, but so far this year we're healthy and it's showing on the field."
The explosive plays that were missing in the first four games have been conspicuous by their presence in the last two. The Spartans are averaging 4.5 yards per rush compared to 3.9 last season and the line has allowed just four quarterback sacks, second in the Big Ten only to Nebraska with three.
Cook attributes much of his improvement to the trust he has developed with the line. After completing 54.4 percent of his passes in the first five games, Cook's accuracy spiked to 71 percent (22 of 31) against Indiana. It also doesn't hurt to have a strong personal bond with his protectors.
"I'm pretty close with all of them, and we're pretty good friends going down the line starting with Dan France," Cook said. "Fou and Jack Allen are my roommates. I'm buddies with Travis Jackson and Blake Treadwell. It's nice to have an offensive line that is that good and is allowing so few sacks. It's allowing me to go through my reads, be calm in the pocket and not forcing things.
"I'm definitely a lot more comfortable now than I was earlier in the season. Against Notre Dame, I feel like I rushed a lot of my throws that if I would have waited a hair longer and let the play develop, there were windows for down-the-field throws. I did that against Iowa, putting all my trust in (the line) and keeping my eyes downfield, saying so what if I get hit. Then, I did that again against Indiana. I'm just getting really comfortable with them protecting me, knowing where to step up in the pocket and where to make the throws."
As coordinated as the line looks from tackle-to-tackle in concert with Cook and Langford and the other playmakers, Fonoti sees room for even more improvement in the second half of the season.
"We're nowhere near as good as we can be," Fonoti said. "We have so many guys who know what to do and we've got guys who continue to learn more. That's definitely putting us in the right positions and allowing us to keep that fast tempo we're trying to do by keeping fresh bodies in there. The rotation we have is a good thing.
"One of our huge things the coaches are harping on is getting back to what we know and love Spartan football to be. Running the ball is something we're emphasizing, and we're just trying to do our best and be those unsung heroes doing what we're supposed to do, and celebrating with the other guys when they make big plays."