Nov. 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - A year ago they were the goats, complete with matching hands.
Last Saturday, Michigan State's receivers were the heroes of the 41-28 victory at Nebraska and earlier this week coach Mark Dantonio said they have become a "strength on our football team." No one has found more of the inches that eluded the Spartans in 2012 than the Bennie Fowler-led unit that had the media haggling over what constituted a dropped pass on a weekly basis.
The receivers were at their strongest against the Cornhuskers. Seven of MSU's 11 third-down conversions, on 21 tries, came on passes from quarterback Connor Cook to wideouts. It would have been eight of 12 if the Spartans' first drive hadn't ended when Tony Lippett's heel nicked the end line on what would have been a touchdown on third-and-10.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Lippett kept a scoring drive with a 34-yard reception on third-and-5, and Keith Mumphery finished it with a 27-yard touchdown catch on third-and-13. Macgarrett Kings set up MSU's final score with a 12-yard catch on third-and-8.
Lippett, who with 28 catches for 318 yards this season personifies the receiving corps' transformation, is keeping his eye on the ball even when given the chance to confront the harshest critics.
"I guess you can say (there's a sense of relief), but I don't really pay attention to the papers and stuff," Lippett said. "I don't think we're a strength yet. We're still striving to continue to make plays and continue to find little things where we can make plays and that's blocking, catching, running down on kickoffs, rangers, whatever it is.
"We're just trying to find every little inch we can make a play in, and we're confident we can do it. We put in a lot of work every day, and we just try to go out there and showcase it on the field. We know we've got the ability and talent, but it was just all in our heads."
Despite preseason claims that the dropped passes that plagued the Spartans last year had been all but cured, the receiving corps appeared to suffer a relapse in the early goings.
Nevertheless, Fowler, Lippett, Dantonio, wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel and just about everyone else connected with the team asserted that based on their performances in practice, it was only a matter of time before the receivers broke out.
In retrospect, considering how the receivers, and the offense as a whole, had to re-adjust to Cook, who made his first career start in the second game against South Florida, it wasn't an outlandish prediction.
By the time Cook had settled in against Iowa in the Big Ten opener, the receivers had also found their groove. The Spartans are 11th in the league in passing offense and in passing efficiency against all opponents, but sixth in both categories in the six conference-only games.
After a sluggish start, the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Lippett surged after having a heart-to-heart talk with Dantonio during the September bye week. Dantonio simply told Lippett to stop being reluctant to use his size to his advantage and "play big." Meantime, Fowler, a fifth-year senior, became a steadying influence by coming up with tough catches and Kings set a more aggressive tone with his get-after-it style.
"We weren't doubting ourselves," Lippett said. "We'd go out here every day against a good defense, and we felt if we can make plays against them, we can make plays against a lot of people. I don't know the exact moment (it all came together), but we definitely needed to showcase it in a game because that's the big stage.
"Practice is good, but Saturday is what you play for and you have to be able to show it on the field. I just needed to attack the ball, attack defenders, just play big and make that play when the quarterback just throws it up there just because he trusts me. I needed to come down with that ball."
Lippett helped alter field position against Nebraska with a 20-yard catch on third-and-19 and a 13-yarder on third-and-10 even though those drives ended with punts. He finished with four catches for a career-best 67 yards.
"I'm highly confident," Lippett said. "I feel like I've put in a lot of work in the offseason and throughout the days to just play loose and have fun. I just try to believe in my talent out there, and in Connor and this offense."
The Spartans can clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game with a road victory against Northwestern on Saturday. The Wildcats are winless in the league and ranked 11th in passing defense.
Cook had a hard time remembering the last time Lippett dropped a pass in a game or practice. He had two catches for 29 yards, including a 20-yarder, against the Hawkeyes and a week later set a personal record with six receptions against Indiana.
"When October rolled around and once we played Iowa, and the big-time catches he made there, skyrocketed his confidence and things have been great ever since," Cook said. "It definitely makes me feel more confident as a quarterback that I can put (the ball) in different spots and have my guys catch it.
"I greatly appreciate what they've done. You've got guys out there working, running routes and catching after practice. Bennie's done a great job leading all the underclassmen and making them stay after. It just shows you their resilience. They received so much criticism, and they're not going to let what the media had to say or what TV sources affect them. They just put their heads down, worked hard and knew something was going to happen."
The synergy between Cook and the receiving corps has benefitted both parties immensely, said quarterbacks coach Brad Salem. Cook completed only 15-of-31 passes against Nebraska, but he connected on his last four attempts on third down.
"Part of is, do you make throws when needed?" Salem said. "That's been the encouraging thing when you look at us offensively. You study just our Big Ten games, and we're over 50 percent on third down. Partly, we're running the ball well and putting ourselves in favorable third downs, but (Cook) made some great throws, he had protection and our (receivers) stepped up and made some great catches, so it's really a lot of guys together.
"Success breeds success. Coach Samuel has done a great job with those guys and has been bringing them along throughout the last year. Part of it, too, is you have evidence. I think it builds when you see Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler and how those guys are playing right now. They've got a little bit of an edge to them. You want your guys to play confident, but the reality is you need results to have that happen, and we have."