Dec. 26, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TEMPE, Ariz. - The clock is running out on Michigan State' season-long contention that it's only a matter of time before the offense operates at peak efficiency.
If the dropped passes, untimely penalties, blown assignments and missed opportunities that proved to be so agonizingly costly in six regular-season losses aren't cleared up against TCU in Saturday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the Spartans won't be able to prove that they've rectified the situation until the 2013 season opener versus Western Michigan.
"This really is the last chance," quarterback Andrew Maxwell said before Wednesday's practice at Corona del Sol High School. "We have kind of struggled all year on offense, but at the same time we have been so close.
"That's the frustrating thing. The good news of it all is it's nothing that we can't fix. We can point at just about everything that went wrong and say the error was on our part. If it was the other way around, and it was something (the opposing defense) was doing that we just couldn't do anything about, it'd be a different story."
The Spartans (6-6) followed every loss by lamenting their inability to finish plays, possessions and games. The offense has done a far better job of stopping itself with mistakes than opposing defenses have with schemes.
Although MSU is ninth in the Big Ten in total offense with 370.3 yards per game, it's only 20 yards off the pace established when it won the 2011 Legends Division Championship.
With Le'Veon Bell leading the Big Ten in rushing, Michigan State has improved from 11th in the league in rushing offense to seventh.
The biggest disparity is in scoring. The Spartans were third in the league last season with 31 points per game but are currently 10th at 20.2. The 2011 Spartans scored 28 or more points in 11 of 14 games, but this season MSU has made it past 26 points just twice.
Michigan State has been its own worst enemy in the red zone while producing just 21 touchdowns on 42 opportunities. Last year, MSU converted 34 of 56 red-zone forays into touchdowns. Overall, touchdowns are way down - from 47 to 25.
But strange things happen in bowl games, which tend to be high-scoring affairs, and Maxwell wouldn't mind seeing the floodgates open against a Horned Frogs defense that's ranked No. 1 overall and second in points allowed in the Big 12.
"That's what we're aiming for," Maxwell said. "It really comes down to doing the little things right because after such a long layoff between your last game and this one, it can be easy to get sloppy.
"If we can do those things offensively, I think we'll have an opportunity to score some points. What we have learned this year is how to play in close games, but if we can have a game where we can score some points, we're confident our defense will continue to play the way they have all year."
Because the offense hasn't been preoccupied by preparing for a different defensive attack on a weekly basis, Maxwell has been free to work relentlessly on timing with wideouts Aaron Burbridge, Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler and tight end Dion Sims.
"I do feel like we've improved every week throughout the season and every bowl practice," Maxwell said. "If we approach it with an attitude that we have made those strides, and we play with confidence, we're going to be fine."
If MSU's offense does take flight against TCU, it will likely be due to correcting recurring problems and carrying out assignments more proficiently than it does with some hastily installed radical new wrinkle.
Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar has worked on making Maxwell more of a moving target and allowing him to keep plays and drives alive with his running ability.
"Rarely do you get to set your feet and throw it without being harassed, but I think he's done a pretty good job on the move," Roushar said.
However, it's not like Michigan State has thrown out its pro-style I-formation and replaced it with the read-option.
"We're really not far away from who we've been," Roushar said. "We're not asking them to do a lot of different things and I think they've done a good job with what we've asked them to do. Hopefully, it suits their skill-sets.
"Timing is always a concern and we've been away from the game for a long time. Offensively, is it like at the start of the season when you're generally a little behind the defense? Let's hope not, but that's certainly a concern."
How well Michigan State moves the ball will depend on how it counters TCU's shifting-sand 4-2-5 defense.
The Frogs will be moving on every snap of the ball with either a designed slant angle called in the huddle or on an instantaneous read of what MSU is doing, Roushar said. TCU can morph into an eight- or nine-man front designed to stop the run in a split-second.
"I think we'll really learn about our ability to block those guys up front," Roushar said. "Whether we can do that on a consistent basis is one of the great challenges of this game."
And if met, the Spartans may finally produce the statement-making result that has eluded them all season long.
"This is a chance to really feel good about the way we finish," Maxwell said. "People are always going to remember how you finished, and in the off-season when people look back on our season, the freshest memory in their mind is going to be the bowl game.
"So if we can have a good performance as an offense, and especially as a team, that's going to give us a lot of good momentum going into the next season."