Dec. 21, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The time spent away from football since Michigan State defeated Minnesota on Nov. 24 has given the Spartans a chance to hit the reset button, according to Andrew Maxwell.
"The season can get long," the junior quarterback said this week. "You start at the beginning of August and you really go until after Thanksgiving, and day in and day out things can become kind of monotonous.
"But when you can finish up the way we did and then have the opportunity to step away a little bit, that just gives everybody a chance to physically get fresh and mentally re-evaluate everything."
It's been like taking a break from a difficult project that just isn't coming together as intended, and re-approaching it from a different angle that offers a new perspective and possibly some innovative solutions.
Maxwell singled out MSU's beleaguered receiving corps as a prime example. The trials and tribulations endured by the young and inexperienced unit throughout the season haven't carried over into the seven bowl practices head coach Mark Dantonio has put the Spartans through so far, as far as Maxwell can tell.
"We've always had the playmaking ability there, but some of the times they just think a little bit too much," he said. "In the bowl practices, I've really seen them cut loose and run their routes, and play with the tenacity we knew they could play with and maybe didn't show up all the time.
"I've seen them play with an intensity I haven't seen and hopefully that's going to yield good things for us."
Michigan State will go into the Dec. 29 game against TCU in Tempe, Ariz., with renewed optimism. The 6-6 Spartans have one more shot at showing what the 2012 season should have been and what 2013 can be.
"You come back to work with that same zeal you had at the start of the season," Maxwell said. "I think that's what we've had in these bowl practices."
A healthy dose of reflection has been augmented with some new wrinkles.
In the interest of making ball security less of an issue against the Horned Frogs, Dantonio has allowed the defense to hit Maxwell and back-up quarterbacks Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor during live scrimmages. That means Maxwell won't go five weeks between hits.
Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar has also experimented with moving the pocket, a strategy that could come handy against TCU, which leads the Big 12 in total defense and is second in the conference with 26 quarterback sacks (2.2 per game). The Spartans have also tinkered with some designed quarterback run-options.
"You go in with an idea that I think you've got to change the launch point a little bit," Roushar said. "If this becomes a one-dimensional game, and if we're sitting in the pocket 60, 70 percent of the time, I don't think that plays into our favor.
"We're going to have to move the pocket. We're going to have to have success on early downs to put us in situations where we can move the pocket effectively. Those certainly are things that we've talked a lot about as we've prepared for these guys. Whether we carry them into the game or not, I think that's something we've still got to talk about as a staff and make a decision into game week."
Instead of trying to ramp up MSU's touchdown production in the red zone - only Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois have scored fewer than the Spartans' 21 TDs from inside the 20 - with radical new schemes, Roushar is emphasizing what has worked this season and shelving what hasn't.
"We went back through and tried to identify the things that we did well consistently throughout the year, and as we've set the game plan, try to take that into account, rather than creating new designs and getting further away from what we've done," he said. "(We'll) see if we can put a premium on execution."
That certainly will include attacking the Frogs' patiently effective read-and-react defensive front with Big Ten leading rusher Le'Veon Bell.
At first glance, it would seem that Bell would have a difficult time picking up yardage against TCU's 4-2-5 defense, which Roushar compared favorably to Ohio State's because of the way its linemen slant and angle into the gaps. Bell rushed for a season-low 45 yards on 17 carries in the one-point loss to the Buckeyes, but Maxwell isn't worried.
"Anytime you have No. 24 in your backfield you like your chances against just about anybody," Maxwell said. "The beauty of Le'Veon is he's geared to do a lot of things. He's not a running back who has just one style. When he needs to power it, he can run powerfully and when he needs to juke somebody or jump over somebody, he can do that, too.
"We're expecting big things from him in this game."
There's a good chance TyQuan Hammock, who's been making the transition from linebacker to fullback during bowl preparations, will help create some creases for Bell.
"They play two linebackers and four down linemen and really just try to get after you with their D-linemen," Bell said. "Teams like this, with early readers, you just have to wear down. The offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks just have to keep pushing on them. Eventually, those holes will get bigger and that's when I have to take advantage of them."
Offensively, TCU most resembles what Michigan State faced against Northwestern, and not just because both teams are purple. The Frogs will attack the Spartans with an up-tempo spread attack that will limit defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's personnel packages.
However, he's getting help at the defensive tackle position from 6-foot-5, 295-pound Lawrence Thomas, who has played fullback for most of the season. Thomas adds speed, mobility and size to the line and likely will play both ways against TCU.
"We gave him an opportunity at fullback, but it wasn't like we were giving him away," Narduzzi said. "I told him that the whole time, and I told (running backs) coach (Brad) Salem, `We're getting him back, don't even think about keeping him.' So we knew we were getting him back.
"He's made some huge, huge strides. Mentally he's a lot tougher than he was; that's the first thing. Athletically you watch him run, and there was no doubt that he could play defense. I think he's going to be a great player, and I told him when he moved to fullback that he will be an all-conference defensive lineman (some day)."
As much as Michigan State is working toward the future, the Spartans are universal in their desire to help those leaving the program stamp it with a positive mark.
"It's not just about the goals we've set," said junior defensive end William Gholston. "It's also for the seniors because this is their last go-around. We just want to send them off right because I enjoy and cherish each and every one of them.
"Everybody on the team is like my brother and I would hate to see them go out (with a loss). We're going to try to win for them."
In a way, the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is the season-opener and season-finale for a one-game season, marked with the excitement of starting anew and tinged with the reality that in many ways, the end is just 60 minutes away.
"We've talked a lot about this bowl game sort of being a legacy for our seniors as we leave," Dantonio said. "We've only got (12) seniors with (offensive tackle Fou) Fonoti and (defensive lineman Tyler) Hoover both coming back next year, so we're a young football team, and it gives us an opportunity to sort of move forward, I guess, in 2013.
"We're going to live on this game for the next eight months, there's no question about that. I think it's important that we're ready to play and we're focused, not just ready to play physically but also mentally - and fresh."