Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
The transition period between Spartan standout quarterback Kirk Cousins and Andrew Maxwell was expected to be a smooth one. But fate was unkind to the junior quarterback and Spartan Nation, as Maxwell and his receivers couldn’t put it all together. Michigan State also sustained key losses at offensive line, as Fou Fonoti and Travis Jackson suffered season-ending injuries. But the Spartans overcame the adversity to earn a chance to finish the season with a bowl win against TCU on Dec. 29. Maxwell recently took time after practice to talk to the media about a number of topics, from the talent at the wide receiver position to the offense’s showdown with TCU’s 4-2-5 defense in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The nature of the bowl season creates a large gap between the last week of the regular season and the bowl game. For the Spartans, the break between the team’s win over Minnesota and the upcoming season finale against the Horned Frogs is over a month. Maxwell pointed out one advantage to the schedule: an opportunity to hit the refresh button. “Coach D[antonio] always talks about staying fresh. The season can get long: you start at the beginning of August and you go all the way to after Thanksgiving,” the junior QB said. “[The break] gives everybody a chance to physically get fresh and mentally to re-evaluate everything. And when you come back to work, you come back to work with the same zeal you had starting the season, and that’s what we’ve had this bowl practice.”
One oft-noted negative about the gap between games is that players can easily get rusty. Maxwell addressed this quandary: “Certainly there will be some rust. I think that showed a couple weeks ago when we had our first bowl practice because we had about two weeks off and then we came back here and had full-fledged practice. There’s going to be things you have to clean up,” the team captain said. “But I think that’s the beauty of the bowl practice. I really liked the way we spaced out having a practice, then having finals week off, then getting back into it… You have time to get the rust out of the way. Then when you come back to work for real, then you can hit your stride and really get ready to play the game.”
Though the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl might not carry a lot of significance, a win would mean a great deal for Michigan State. “It’s a chance to set the tone going into the offseason. It really sets the tone for the whole season because people remember how you finish,” Maxwell explained. “We’re sitting here at 6-6 and obviously a win or a loss can tilt the season either way. You get a win here, you end up with a winning record and the lasting memory of the Michigan State Spartans for 2012 is a bowl win, that’s going to leave a lot of good feelings and…a lot of good momentum heading into the offseason.”
In addition to infusing the program with positive energy heading into 2013, a victory over TCU would give MSU a bowl win in two consecutive seasons for the first time since 1989-90. “I think it would speak volumes as to where the program is, it would speak volumes as to where Coach Dantonio and the coaching staff have brought this program,” Maxwell stated. “That’s something that would really mean a lot to these seniors who have been here through the whole Coach Dantonio era and built this program from where it was. So we need to do it for them and for Spartan fans everywhere.”
Michigan State has the tools to accomplish such a feat, especially with LeVeon Bell lining up on offense. “Obviously when you have number 24 in your backfield, you have to like your chances against just about anybody,” Maxwell affirmed. “I think that’s the beauty of LeVeon: he’s geared to do a lot of things. He’s not a running back that has just one style. If he needs to power it, he can run the football powerfully, and if he needs to juke somebody or jump over somebody, he can do that too. He’s been a great player for us and we’re expecting big things from him this game.”
Though the wide receiving core struggled at some points over the course of the season, Maxwell doesn’t doubt the talent at the position. “We have the playmaking ability there; it’s just that some of the time, they just think a little bit too much. Especially through the bowl practice, I saw them really just cut loose and run their routes and play with the tenacity that we knew they could play with but maybe didn’t show up all the time,” Maxwell said. “Hopefully that’s going to yield good things for us.”
At one point, Maxwell was asked if he could see an MSU wideout distinguishing himself with a breakout game against TCU. The junior responded, “I think that opportunity is there for everybody. I think that everybody on that receiving core has had flashes of brilliance this year,” said Maxwell. “Each and every one of them has that ability to become that household name and to make those plays. So I’m looking forward to what we can do as a whole and see what we can do as a passing game, because this can be a great opportunity for us to become that passing attack that we always knew we could be.”
The Spartans’ ability to pass will be challenged by TCU’s tough 4-2-5 defense, a base defense Michigan State did not see often in Big Ten competition this season. “You’re not going to get nickel, 4-2-5, every down in the Big Ten. Teams will rotate that in there and play that on 3rd down and maybe occasionally on 1st and 2nd down, but you’re not going to find a team very often that’s going to do that every down, especially on 1st down,” the MSU quarterback said. “That’s going to be a challenge for us, but that’s something we’ve seen on film now and something we’ve gotten a chance to look at and prepare for.” Though TCU’s defense plays a different style than the Spartans are used to, “They do show a lot of characteristics physically of a Big Ten team: they’re big and strong, they’re fast and they’re going to hit you. That’s something that we’re ready for,” Maxwell said.
Establishing run against the Horned Frogs’ nickel defense to set up the pass will be critical. “Playing the style of defense that they do, it puts a lot more pressure on their defensive line and their front four. It puts a lot more pressure on their interior linebackers,” Maxwell said. “But I think their defense does a good job. Their d[efensive] line isn’t as much of a downhill rushing attack, they’re more of a ‘read, get a feel for the line, and then make a play when they react [type of defensive line].’ That’s what they practice, that’s what they do and they’re very good at it.” Balance will be a key to victory for the Spartans, because, as Maxwell said: “Schematically, if you look at them, they’ve got ways to defend any type of offense that’s going to be thrown at them.”
To prepare for a TCU defense that likes to attack opposing offenses with its athletic defensive ends, the MSU coaching staff decided to designate quarterbacks as “live” in practice. Typically, hits on quarterbacks in practice are not allowed, but in practice leading up to the bowl game, the coaches allowed it. “That might jump off the page: ‘Quarterbacks went live,’ but it wasn’t really as barbaric or as malicious as it may sound,” the starting quarterback explained. “The offensive line did a good job of keeping me off my back. But it was good to get that work in because that’s what it’s going to be like in the game. And unless you go live, you really can’t simulate being in the pocket and trying to get the ball out of your hands before you run out of time.” Maxwell thought that the decision especially helped “the young guys, who haven’t had that on-field experience in the games. It’s good for them and it gives them a taste for what it’s like out there.”
Luckily for Maxwell, his offensive line did a great job of protecting him, as the defensive line didn’t get a clean hit on him. When asked if he thought the defensive line let up on him, Maxwell laughed and said: “They might say they go easy on me, but I don’t believe it.”