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Adventures in Offense 2013: Michigan State

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Quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Gregory Shamus

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 4th in Big Ten, 86th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 8th in Big Ten, 77th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 10th in Big Ten, 110th Nationally
Total Offense: 9th in Big Ten, 97th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 39.53% (85 out of 215 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 54.55% (6 out of 11 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 81.82% (36 out of 44 attempts)
Total Points: 260 (27 TD, 23 FG, 25 extra point, 1 two-point)
Average points per game: 20.0

2012 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 32-68-5
Head Coach Mark Dantonio: 51-28 at Michigan State, 69-45 overall

What's up with the offense?

Michigan State had one of the worst offenses in the conference last year, which was a large part of the reason why they dropped six games. Without the effort of their stellar defense, it's entirely possible they would have dropped nine or ten.

So what went wrong? Too many things to count. Having started a new job that eats up far too much of my time, I'm scrambling to get this done before Friday. I'll try to be as succinct as possible and get more specific about player performances in the Key Players section below, while attempting to stay general here.

Here's basically how the 2013 offense for MSU went: fans complained constantly about then-offensive coordinator Dan Roushar (now coaching the running backs for the New Orleans Saints). Roushar had been promoted in 2011 to replace Don Treadwell (now the head coach of the Miami University Redhawks), and in his two years as Michigan State's offensive coordinator he never quite got the blessing from the fans. Even when he had players like Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Edwin Baker, and Brian Linthicum, Roushar would make questionable play calls that bordered on the ultra-conservative. So what happens when you take away a pile of All Big Ten talent and give that guy a heap of inexperienced players instead? You get Sparty's offense in 2013.

To be fair, though, it wasn't all Dan Roushar's fault. Michigan State was one of the worst teams in the country in offensive execution, and certainly among the worst in the conference. They went from being ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in completion percentage during the Kirk Cousins-led 2011 to being dead last in the conference in completion percentage for 2012. Additionally, the Spartans were 11th in the Big Ten in scoring touchdowns in the redzone. On top of that, Michigan State had more third downs than anyone else in the Big Ten (215), yet they only converted 85 (39.53%) of them. When you can barely sustain drives and can't even score when you've got the opportunity, it makes sense that the offensive coordinator would shy away from taking even more risks.

Always loyal to his friends, head coach Mark Dantonio convinced Roushar to take the position job with the Saints without firing him, and hired former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman as the replacement. (Dantonio knew Bollman from their days in Columbus as members of Jim Tressel's staff.) The reaction from the hire was mixed to say the least. Spartan fans were hoping that Dantonio would make a home-run hire for the coordinator spot as a statement to doubters that he was a visionary, but the hiring of Bollman felt less like ingenuity and more like nepotism. It also prompted Ohio State blog Land Grant Holy Land to mock the hire by doing a bizarre comparison to Michigan's Al Borges, which is rife with superficial inaccuracies.

Buckeyes had not been pleased with Bollman when 2011 exposed him as a Tressel flunky who had apparently been an offensive-coordinator-in-name-only during the years when Tressel called the shots and coached the program to seven BCS bowl games and a 9-1 record against Michigan. Despite an overabundance of talent that Urban Meyer would form into the Big Ten's 3rd-best total offense a year later, Jim Bollman's Buckeye offense was the 2nd-worst in the conference in 2011 when he held the reigns.

Some MSU fans are choosing to look at the hire optimistically, and it was later announced that Bollman will be sharing the coordinator duties with Dave Warner, the running backs coach who Dantonio promoted internally. At least this way Bollman will be able to share some of the blame if things don't go well.

Fans got their first look at the new offense in the 2013 spring game. You be the judge:

Key Players

Although Andrew Maxwell may have been the undisputed starter at quarterback last season, he was also one of the biggest reasons why the offense struggled. The then-junior had the worst completion percentage (52.5%) of all the Big Ten starting quarterbacks, even worse than Denard(!!!). He was 234-of-446 over the season, garnering 2606 total passing yards, with 13 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions. In the 2013 spring game nothing really changed as Maxwell went a relatively unimpressive 9-of-20 for 110 yards.

Then there's Connor Cook. The soon-to-be sophomore played in three games a true freshman, most notably when he led the Spartans to a scoring drive at the end of the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl against TCU that won them the game. Cook was only 9-of-17 over the season, but he showed the poise and playmaking ability that Maxwell seemed to lack. He was far more impressive in the spring game, where he went 10-of-26 and outgained Maxwell, a senior with starting experience, by more than 100 yards (217). In a way, Cook appears like a poor man's Kirk Cousins, but a poor man's Kirk Cousins is probably better than a rich man's Andrew Maxwell.

Other options at quarterback are pretty much a wash at this point. MSU fans were talking all kinds of trash about how Tyler O'Connor was going to kick all kinds of butt after redshirting last year, but the freshman had the worst performance of the three scholarship quarterbacks in the spring game (3-of-7, 59 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) and still doesn't seem ready. Some are even curious if incoming freshman Damion Terry, a notable dual-threat, might surprise a few people once he steps on campus.

If I'm a Spartan fan I am not feeling good about the running game. You know it's a bad sign when Max Bullough's brother, Riley Bullough, a 6'2", 232 lbs. linebacker converted to tailback because of now frighteningly obvious lack of talent and depth, is said to be doing better than the guys actually recruited to be running backs. Bullough could dazzle and turn out to be a Mark Weisman/Rex Burkhead type, but I have to agree with Only Colors blogger Chris Vannini when he says that if incoming freshmen R.J. Shelton and Gerald Holmes don't seriously shake up the depth chart it's going to be very, very bad.

You'd think that someone out of the tandem of Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford, or Nick Thompkins would at least be able to do better than a converted linebacker, but the three speed backs failed to separate themselves. Hill has the most game experience of all the running backs on the roster, but his skills are so vastly different from those of previous starter LeVeon Bell that it's difficult to see him simply step in and assume the role, despite that many thought he would.

The Spartans are improving at wide receiver, but they still need a lot of work. True sophomore Aaron Burbridge is clearly the best of the bunch and is turning out to be everything the Spartans hoped he would be. Former Tennessee Volunteer DeAnthony Arnett should also be a serviceable option and looks poised to be a breakout player besides Burbridge if a quarterback can get him the ball. Expect key depth to come from juniors Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey, and former quarterback Kirk Cousins was in the booth during the spring game talking all kinds of praise about senior Bennie Fowler, who led the team in receptions in 2012.

The offense is a little thin at tight end following Dion Sims' decision to bolt early for the NFL. The Spartans didn't get really any production from the tight ends besides Sims, and junior Andrew Gleichert and sophomore Paul Lang were the only other ones to record stats. Dantonio took one tight end in the 2013 recruiting cycle, Dylan Chmura (6'6", 225 lbs.), out of Wisconsin, so it's possible he could get some early playing time.

Last but not least, there's the offensive line. The Spartans have what look like four returning starters in left guard Blake Treadwell, center Jack Allen, right tackle Skyler Burkhead, and left tackle Dan France, who was hit or miss at times. There seems to be some dispute over just how good this offensive line was in 2012 and how good they could be in 2013. In the comments section of an article that discussed Michigan State's outlook for the upcoming season, Zach Travis offered this on the offensive line [emphasis mine]:

The offense was bad last year and doesn’t look to be taking a huge step forward this year. ... I wouldn't say MSU's struggles are purely a result of Kirk Cousins not being around. The offensive line was bad and not very deep and the receivers were young.

The OL lost three players at points last year
Blake Treadwell missed the first four games with injury, Travis Jackson missed the last eight, and Fou Fonoti missed almost the entire season. Michigan State had little quality depth built up (think UM’s OL struggles as of late) and couldn’t deal with the injury problems. That LeVeon Bell was able to do as well as he did rushing the ball is a big credit to his ability. Watch those games, he was taking on a lot of contact near the line of scrimmage.

However,'s Pete Fiutak seems to believe that MSU's OL not only was among the best in the conference last season, but it will be this season as well [emphasis mine]:

Outlook: This was expected to be among the Big Ten’s best lines last season, it was, and now almost everyone is back. There isn’t the star power of some of the other top lines in the conference, but it’s rock-solid from side-to-side with great blasting ability for the ground game while being good enough in pass protection to make the O go. As long as big injuries don’t strike right away, this will once again be a tremendous plus.
Unit Rating: 9 [out of 10]



The Spartans have typically been the most successful offensively under Dantonio when they've been able to strike a balance between the run and the pass. They've relied on the tough, physical running of 1,000-yard rushers to make defenses cheat up, and then they've beat them with play action over the top. They've also depended on smart, accurate quarterbacks to make good throws and easy check-downs that keep drives going. And the occasional Hail Mary game-winning pass never hurt.

Dantonio says he intends to stick with Andrew Maxwell for the time being, which may be cause for concern among Spartan fans, even those of them who are optimistic that Maxwell will improve by the time the season starts. However, as fiercely loyal as Dantonio is to his starter, there is some evidence that he is considering alternatives. In discussing the quarterback situation post-spring game, Dantonio mentioned all four quarterbacks in vague terms, but he singled out one by name:

"I think our quarterback situation is in better shape than it was last year, we have four scholarship quarterbacks,'' [Mark Dantonio] said. "We have a redshirt freshman who has a lot of practice experience, We have a dynamic freshman coming in, we have an experienced quarterback coming back that's played in 13 games.

"And another guy, Connor Cook, that's coming back that has the game experience and bowl experience where he really led the team to a winning score,'' Dantonio continued. "There is talent at that position. All those things are a positive. We've got to make plays and deliver at that position.''

I'm not sure how deliberate that was, but it could be telling. Cook has far more versatility in the pocket and, perhaps more importantly, seems to simply have the poise of a leader. My prediction is that Connor Cook is the starter by the halfway point of the season, if he doesn't start in game one.

Michigan State had a strong, highly valuable rusher in LeVeon Bell for the 2012 season, but he's gone now. Had the Spartans possessed a moderate semblance of a passing game under Maxwell, it's likely they would have been in contention for the Big Ten championship for the third year in a row. Now, they're entering 2013 with even less balance as they face a shaky passing game and a completely unproven running game. My bias as a Michigan fan aside, I have a very difficult time seeing anything beyond marginal improvement.

Nevertheless, the Spartan defense will once again likely be the driving force of the program for the season, simultaneously taking a great deal of pressure off the offense and putting a great deal of pressure on: while they likely won't be asked to bail out the team in a shootout, the offense still has to score some points if they want to win games. With a manageable schedule, including a certain big rivalry game at home, 2013 looks like it's going to be a patchwork season for the offense. Find the pieces that work, and they may just have the proverbial fighter's chance.

Grade: B-