Nov. 14, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Football coaches have long celebrated the quarterback with the "hot hand" and stayed with the "hot back" churning out yardage.
Because of a solid eight-man rotation, Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten has expanded the use of that jargon by going with the so-called hot blocker all season long depending on the situation.
"You've got an idea of what you think will work, and then as you go through the game you say, `Well, let's see if this works; We like this for these reasons; Oh, that worked,'" Staten said. "It's the ebb and flow of the game.
"There've been a lot of adjustments and one of the things we've been able to do is find little things as the game goes on, and our guys have played enough football that they are able to make some changes."
Consequently, if one of MSU's linemen is having a particularly good day at run-blocking or at pass-protecting, "we'd like to keep that person in," Staten said. "That helps."
So, while red-shirt freshman Jack Conklin (left tackle), fifth-year senior Blake Treadwell (left guard), red-shirt sophomore Jack Allen (center), fifth-year senior Dan France (right guard) and fifth-year senior Fou Fonoti (right tackle) are slated to start at Nebraska on Saturday, sophomore tackle Donavon Clark, junior center Travis Jackson and utility lineman Connor Kruse will almost certainly get on the field and stay there if their performance warrants extended playing time.
"Competition is a great thing, and ... with winning competition, it pulls the best out of them," Staten said. "We've been able to do that this year, thankfully, and, God willing, continue it as we go forward."
The chemistry and camaraderie in MSU's offensive line room has resulted in line play that has allowed a Big Ten-low seven quarterback sacks in nine games. The Spartan blockers are in for arguably their toughest challenge of the season, however, because the Cornhuskers lead the league with 30 sacks in nine games.
Staten expects his group to collectively rise to the occasion as Michigan State goes for its first victory against Nebraska and a share of its second Big Ten Legends Division Championship under head coach Mark Dantonio.
"I just saw guys in that room who wanted to not only play for Coach D and for me, but for each other, and when you have that you have the ability to (compensate for deficiencies)," Staten said. "Maybe this one's lacking a little bit in the way he kick-sets (in pass protection). For the guy who's kick-setting better, it's going to up his performance in how he run-blocks because he sees the other guy competing to essentially take time from him and play.
"On top of that, they enjoy watching each other play. Like Travis Jackson said to me a week or two ago,`This is the most fun I've had,' which is nice to hear a fourth-year player say because he's been in some ballgames and he's a terrific player himself."
No blocker has been hotter in the league and possibly the nation, in Staten's estimation, than Treadwell.
"The one staple, I think he's been the offensive lineman of the game in seven or six of our eight victories, has been Treadwell," Staten said. "I have not seen another lineman, another guard, play like he's played all year in all the film we've watched.
"We're not only talking All-Big Ten but you could even go a slot above that. He's been absolutely tremendous. The one I would compare him to is Spencer Long, who got hurt for Nebraska, and it's just sad to see him go (with a season-ending knee injury against Purdue). But Tready's right up there. Nobody else that we've watched on film even compares to him."
GoG Notes & Quotes: The MSU-Nebraska game will feature two of the Big Ten's premier quarterback sackers in Spartan defensive end Shilique Calhoun and the Cornhuskers' Randy Gregory.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Gregory leads the league with 7.5 sacks per game and Calhoun is tied with Ohio State's Noah Spence for second with 6.5.
"He is turning into a fantastic player," Staten said of Gregory. "I heard somewhere that they want him to gain more weight. Well, he looks plenty big to me. He's got Shilique-like abilities.
"Then you combine that with (defensive end Jason) Ankrah, who's a 265-pound guy, (defensive tackle Thad) Randle, who's very good inside and (defensive tackle Aaron) Curry, who's that big-bodied guy, (and) I think my hair is definitely thinner because I've had two weeks to look at it and put our heads together in that offensive staff room to come up with a game plan."
No one can say for certain the Spartans would have defeated Notre Dame, instead of losing 17-13, had they not committed any pass-interference penalties. However, there appears to be a correlation between MSU's subsequent reduction in pass-interference calls and its current five-game win streak.
"Just knowing what we've been through earlier this season, we know how to change our game up now and just play our type of game," Dennard said. "We've been playing well. I think ... tremendously, actually. We haven't got many pass interference calls after the Notre Dame game and I think we've changed our game well with the refs."
Being able to interact with officials hired to monitor practice has allowed MSU's defensive backs to get a better idea of how to avoid penalties.
"With the refs being at our practices we just ask questions, and (learn) what can we get away with, what will be the call?" Dennard said.
Defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett said Dennard and Waynes haven't fundamentally changed the way they cover receivers since playing Notre Dame.
"They're playing the same," Barnett said. "We play an aggressive style of defense with our corners pressing and things like that. We don't want to grab and hold, and that's not being taught. But, you're going to be aggressive and physical.
"They're playing a little smarter along with the refs getting comfortable with what we do. They watch us over and over and over. You see a lot of teams play off with their corners. As a ref, if you're doing the (MSU) game, you understand that we're going to get up and press and it may not be as bad as it seems because it's not something (they) see all the time."