Coming off a 55-17 win over Youngstown St., the Spartans travel to Notre Dame Stadium to face the Irish at 3:30 Saturday afternoon.
Last Saturday belonged to Connor Cook as the Spartans finally moved the ball and put some points on the board. Cook’s big numbers (15/22, 202 yards, 4 TD) are tough to make sense of given the opponent, but sure are better than the alternative. Cook saw all the significant snaps before yielding to Tyler O’Connor in the 3rd Quarter for an extended stint “garbage time” after the game had gotten out of hand for the Penguins. Time will tell whether the Quarterback competition was fair, but it looks like it’s over, at least for now. Cook’s performance was impressive because it was more consistent and more in control than he had been so far. The combination of Cook starting and the experienced Maxwell backing him up is far from the look we thought we’d see less than a month ago.
It is pretty hard to believe that from Spring Practice until now mid-September, the Quarterback position became this unsettled. If Andrew Maxwell found a way to lead the unit more effectively or if the receivers didn’t completely let him down in the opener, he’d probably still be the starter. Make no mistake, Cook looked great against a Division 1-AA good program, but we won’t know how that will translate to a big game until at least early Saturday evening. As Mark Dantonio told us yesterday, Cook’s role is evolving by the day.
“The first thing you have to do is play well before you really can truly take on a sense of great leadership because they have to have confidence in you,” he said about Cook’s growing leadership position. “He’s got that spark, now what he’s got to do with that spark is take it to a bigger flame.” That work began on Sunday as the Spartans locked in on the Irish, and Dantonio knows what he wants from the Red-Shirt Sophomore during the week. “(We) need to see him adapt (to the opponent), and get in rhythm with his wide receivers like he was this past week.” Since the Coaches didn’t really see what either Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry could do in a game setting, it seems wise to expect more of the “old” Offensive concepts than the “new” ones we’ve heard about this year. Cook and Maxwell seem a much better fit for those than the two young guns.
Despite insisting they would get more young Quarterbacks quality playing time when the opportunity presented itself, the Spartans staff failed to do so Saturday until MSU was up 42-10. Was there really that much of a threat in the 1st Half not to work in O’Connor and get a legitimate look? The Spartans should have played O’Connor in a more competitive game situation, say after the game got to 28-10. Of course you could say that Cook needed as much experience as he could find, but while that may be true for Cook, it may not be best for the Spartans. Time will tell. If Cook comes out of the Notre Dame game, Andrew Maxwell must play and lead with more fire and urgency than he has before.
For an Offense that always strives for balance, the staff didn’t have a very good balance in evaluating the three QBs we’ve seen play. They know what they have in Maxwell, found out a little more about Cook, but failed to give Tyler O’Connor enough of a look to determine if he, and presumably an “evolved” Offense, could work this year. With nearly 8-months and three games to do so, it doesn’t look like they made the most of their opportunities to get a balanced look and strong feeling about who should lead this team into pivotal Notre Dame game. Next week we’ll have a better idea if that was in fact the case, though it may be another month before we know for sure.
Although it’s hard to tell from Youngstown St., there may be a leader emerging from the receiver corps in Macgarrett Kings. Kings’ game is sharper than the Freshmen riddled performance that limited him in 2012. Notre Dame is as big a stage as it gets and with a bit of chemistry apparent between Kings and Connor Cook, we may have discovered the next marquee passing connection. The unit needs more than only Kings, however, so we’ll pay attention to see who rises to the occasion of playing at South Bend and who is not yet ready for the big spotlight. “We work right now with about seven,” Dantonio said about the playing group of Receivers. “When everybody’s involved, they all go together and there’s a lot more camaraderie and happiness,” he summed up.
Last week they kept their edge about them despite being put into a couple of tough spots by the miscues of the other units. Emerging star Shilique Calhoun kept his motor running hot as he again picked up a fumble and continued to affect the opposing Quarterback. Calhoun now has 8-Quarterback Hurries on the year, but will have a much tougher time adding to that number this weekend. The Defense is primed to face its first legitimate Offensive opponent of the year, but hopefully will not feel any extra pressure, similar pressure to 2012, because the other units around them have struggled to produce any points. They should not feel like they have to be perfect against the Irish. Brian Kelly was basically stuck with Tommy Rees at Quarterback after Everett Golson was removed from at least this year’s team. Facing Rees should remove the big threat of an outstanding mobile Quarterback, but Kelly has adjusted the game plan accordingly.
Kelly was once known as an up and coming Offensive genius, but has settled into (for now) becoming the Coach the Irish have been looking for since Lou Holtz retired. After coming back to beat Purdue late last week, the Irish are now completely over their loss at Michigan and see the Spartans as a huge opportunity to move towards their magic BCS number of 9-wins. This Defense is the toughest ND should face all year, and comes during their toughest part of the game schedule. If the Irish can score more than two scores (16-points) against the tight Spartan Defense, they’d have to be pleased and expect to be in position to get the win.
These Spartan Dawgs are playing tight across all positions right now, with depth. Though Isaiah Lewis missed Youngstown St., the Spartans next man R.J. Williamson stepped up and filled the hole. Lewis sounds like he’s in a group of guys who will return to the lineup this week, which should help. MSU is becoming explosive up front, is very solid with Linebackers who can play from sideline to sideline, and features Defensive Backs who can make plays on the ball and feature the type of closing speed you usually don’t see out of a College Defense. When you add all of that up, it’s easy to appreciate just how good the Spartan Defense truly is. Be assured that they know this Saturday is their first shot to make a big splash to the entire country.
By now you know about the concerns with the Punt Return game. Saturday was a good snap shot of the issues as A.J. Sims had a nice return but later fumbled a punt away that was soon converted into a Touchdown by Youngstown St. Adding injury to insult, Sims was banged up on the play and replaced by Nick Hill and Macgarrett Kings for the rest of the day. Hill didn’t look too solid on his attempts either, so perhaps Kings will get a longer look this week. Return opportunities probably should have been spread out earlier in the year. Time will tell whether that proves costly or if there was such a wide gap between Sims and the rest that they really didn’t have much of a choice. The bottom line is that MSU needs more out of its punt return game because the Defense is going to keep getting them attempts.
The kicking game looked good as Kevin Muma was able to hit a couple shorter Field Goals and get back on track heading into the bulk of the season. Mike Sadler has probably been the most dependable Spartan that does not play Defense to date. He’s remained consistent punting with distance when needed (two of them over 50-yards) and has dropped an impressive 11 out of 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. He’s off to the kind of start needed to stay in the All-American race. The biggest issue with the punting game is simply that the Spartans have had to use Sadler too much so far.
Since the Spartan Offense is going to remain a work in progress, at best, the team needs more from its Special Teams unit than it probably should. We will probably look back at the end of November and point to two or three games that were ultimately decided by Special Teams plays. This unit needs to step up for the Spartans to contend.
In many ways the Spartans got out of facing Youngstown St. game what they were hoping to get from the start of the season. The Offense showed signs of life, the Defense dominated, and the team looked like the one Spartan Nation expected to see out of the gate. The thing is, all of that took place against a Division 1-AA power, and offensively, it didn’t look good against two directional schools. As we discussed last week, the truth about the 2013 Spartans will start to be revealed Saturday at South Bend. Will they get blown straight out of Notre Dame Stadium? Can they hang with the Irish on the road? Or might they even be able to beat the touted Domers to jumpstart the year? One of those scenarios is likely to play out.
The Notre Dame rivalry is arguably the biggest and richest in MSU history. Though it’s not nearly as bitter as the sibling grudge with Michigan, this is the only other rivalry that tends to get personal. It builds players’ legacies, and it’s got to be played with more emotion and intensity than what we see on a regular basis. Outside of the state of Michigan, no other Spartan game carries the kind of reach and impact as their battles with Notre Dame. From the most famous game in the history of the sport (1966’s 10-10 tie) to the most famous play of the decade so far (Little Giants), there’s almost always something quite memorable that comes out of this contest. That’s why Notre Dame-MSU is such a big rivalry, and Notre Dame-Michigan is not.
Saturday’s chapter could ultimately be a turning point of the Mark Dantonio era. The outcome of this year’s QB controversy will be essentially revealed and judged across the College Football landscape. A win for the Spartans would boost them back onto the national scene that for the most part has already written the program off as now past its modern peak of back to back 11-win seasons following their offenseless 7-6 2012. If MSU shows up to Notre Dame and looks like they’ve made zero Offensive progress from last year and loses badly, that national perception I just described will be enhanced and could become very difficult to correct. MSU will practically be inked as an incomplete program that’s stuck with the kind of obstacles on Offense that will render them incomplete for the foreseeable future. As Mark Dantonio concluded about these Spartans earlier this week, “we’re going to find out a little bit more about who’s who.”
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- If the Spartans’ Offense looks awful and helpless once again this Saturday, Mark Dantonio should seriously consider making major changes to his Offensive staff before the dinner hour of Sunday night and the coming bye week. This Defense is simply too good to waste for a second straight year and the era (for better or worse) or making such staff changes during the season is now here. As Wisconsin showed us last year, it can save your season.
- After getting completely hosed by the Officials at the end of their game with Arizona St. late Saturday night, it was refreshing to hear new Coach Gary Andersen’s honest thoughts about what went down. “It is hard when the kids didn’t get to decide the game on the field, and they never will be able to. So to me, it’s the game that never ended. I don’t care what anyone says about that, that’s how I feel.” Ironically, Brett Bielema tried to change out the Officials for the home-and-home with the Sun Devils before it started in 2010, fearing such an issue, but could not get it done.
- I wonder what else the Yahoo Sports investigative team has up their sleeve, and when we might see it. The biggest issue I have with players receiving unfair benefits is how it affects the competition across the Conferences. It’s clear in the early aftermath that a lot of schools in certain parts of the country are playing a very different recruiting game than the rest.