The only surprise about Michigan State's offense the first month of the season was that anybody was surprised that the offense would struggle that badly. Andrew Maxwell started the season, but alternated with Connor Cook. And the offense wallowed. The Spartans weren't mediocre on offense; they weren't horrible on offense. The Spartans were borderline pathetic on offense. In three non-conference games against division 1-A opponents, the defense scored more touchdowns (four) than the offense (three).
Eventually Connor Cook took over as the Spartans quarterback, and the Spartans offense has improved a bit. The Spartans now rank 86th nationally in total offense, averaging 379 yards a game, and 59th in scoring offense, averaging 29.8 points a game. Cook is completing 59% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He's averaging 165 yards each game passing. While he's a little more mobile than Maxwell, he's not a serious rushing threat, netting 122 positive yards this season after subtracting 70 yards of sacks.
Former cornerback turned wide receiver Jeremy Langford moved again and is now the main running back. The 6'0" 206 pound junior has rushed for 775 yards and ten touchdowns this season. He's topped the 100 yard mark in his last four games, though it is notable that 70 of his 120 yards rushing against Michigan came in the fourth quarter.
Bennie Fowler leads the Spartans with 353 yards and five touchdowns this season, though sophomore wide receiver Macgarrett Kings has emerged as a new threat. The 5'10" 186 pound receiver has caught 28 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
But it's not offense that's winning games for Michigan State, it's the defense. Ranking #1 in total defense and #3 in scoring defense, the Spartans' defensive reputation is well-deserved. The Spartans defense has giving up 11 touchdowns in 2012, but has scored five touchdowns on their own. Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun has replaced William Ghoulston most adequately; he has eleven tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hurries (yes, I said 17), three fumble recoveries, and an interception this season. Oh, and three touchdowns.
Senior linebackers Denicos Allen (57 tackles, 11 for a loss with seven quarterback hurries) and Max Bullough (52 tackles, 6.5 for a loss with nine quarterback hurries) lead the Spartans on defense. Safety Kurtis Drummond has claimed the free safety job, and has 55 tackles on the season. Cornerback Darqueeze Dennard has 37 tackles, seven passes broken up, and three interceptions on the season.
If Nebraska's defense continues to play like they have the last seven quarters, this game has a chance to be an extremely low-scoring defensive struggle. Turnovers could be the deciding factor in this game, as Nebraska still has the tendency to turn the ball over while Michigan State has the knack of not only forcing turnovers, but scoring on them as well.
Below, check out our preseason preview of Michigan State.
Preseason Preview of the Michigan State Spartans
Last year, Michigan State was a popular pick to win the Big Ten's west division on the basis of their defense. The Spartans were predicted to be great on defense, and they were. Michigan State led the Big Ten in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, and pass efficiency defense. So why did Sparty only go 7-6 last season? The offense. Many prognosticators weren't too worried that Michigan State only returned one player with any significant playing at a skill position...until the season began.
In the season opener against Boise State, the Spartans really struggled until Le'Veon Bell lifted the entire offense and carried them on his shoulders. And that was pretty much the case the rest of the season. Andrew Maxwell struggled all season at quarterback, completing just 53% of his passes for 2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. And in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, things completely unraveled offensively. Maxwell completed just six of 15 passes for 28 yards, and was benched in the third quarter for freshman Connor Cook, who wasn't much better, completing four of 11 passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. The best quarterback on the day was actually Le'Veon Bell, who threw a 29 yard pass. Oh, and Bell rushed for 145 yards on 32 carries and caught two passes for 13 yards. So that's 35 touches for 187 yards of offense. The rest of the Spartans offense? 32 touches for 41 yards.
Bell promptly declared for the NFL draft, and was taken in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. So while seven starters return on offense, most of them are players who really struggled last season. So until SOMEBODY, ANYBODY picks up their game, it seems like Michigan State is likely to struggle once again on offense.
In the spring game, Cook supposedly outplayed Maxwell, though the statistics would indicate otherwise. Cook is slightly bigger (6'4" 215 pounds vs. Maxwell at 6'3" and 209 pounds) and a bit more mobile, but neither is a real threat to run. The hope is that Cook could improvise a bit more to find an open receiver. There's also the thought that if Maxwell hasn't separated himself from Cook, they might just go with the sophomore over the senior. But if the future is the goal, one can't help but wonder if the Spartans might just give true freshman Damion Terry a shot. The 6'4" 210 four-star recruit completed four of seven passes, including a 67 yard touchdown throw, in the Spartans' first scrimmage. In comparison, Cook was 13 for 18 for 133 yards, Maxwell was 13 for 21 for 171 yards.
Whoever starts at quarterback, it would help dramatically if the running game could be as productive as it was last year. That's going to be difficult without Bell, who pretty much had to shoulder the load solo. Bell rushed 382 times last season, with the rest of the team adding only 96. Junior Nick Hill (5'8" 193 pounds) is the most experienced back with 21 carries for 48 yards last season. The situation is so thin that redshirt freshman Riley Bullough (younger brother of Max) moved over to running back in the spring. Bullough (6'2" 232 pounds) was a quarterback in high school, so you might see him run some wildcat plays. In the spring game, Riley did complete one pass to Max on a sandlot play. And if we're talking about the spring game action, even Sparty the mascot had a three yard gain.
Once again, you have to think that freshmen will also get a look here. Gerald Holmes (6'1" 205 pounds) rushed seven times for 55 yards in Friday's scrimmage, and probably fits the Le'Veon Bell profile best. He's even inherited Bell's uniform number. I suspect that by the time the Spartans arrive in Lincoln, Holmes and Bullough will be 1-2 on the depth chart.
It would also help Michigan State's quarterback to have some reliable receivers, and last season, the Spartan receivers resembled the group that Ted Gilmore coached and Bill Callahan recruited. Frankly, they couldn't catch a cold last season. And truth be told, it didn't get any better in the spring.
Senior Bennie Fowler (6'1" 212 pounds) and junior Keith Mumphery (6'0" 208 pounds) led the Spartans last season, and should do the same this season. Mumphery caught 42 passes for 515 yards, but just one touchdown. Fowler battled foot injuries to catch 41 passes for 524 yards and four scores, including the game winner against Wisconsin. The player to watch out for is sophomore Aaron Burbridge, who caught 29 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns in limited action. When he did play, he did have some big performances like an eight catch 134 yard day against Indiana. But his inexperience with the playbook frequently landed him on the sideline, and that's something that should clear up after an impressive spring. The Spartans will need to find a way to replace tight end Dion Sims, who declared early and was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins. Sims was a physical mismatch at 6'5" 280 pounds against anybody who tried to cover him, and there's nobody on the roster remotely comparable. The Spartans will try junior Andrew Gleichert (6'5" 255 pounds) who caught one pass last season.
The strength of the Spartans' offense will continue to be the offensive line, despite junior Skyler Burkland's retirement due to injuries. His spot at right tackle will be filled by senior Fou Fonoti (6'4" 298 pounds), who suffered a foot injury in the season opener and didn't play again. He's back, thanks to a medical hardship. Sophomore right guard Jack Allen (6'1" 295 pounds) and junior Travis Jackson (6'3" 280 pounds) are both former freshman all-Americans, which should make redshirt freshman left tackle Jack Conklin (6'6" 310 pounds) a candidate for those honors this season.
And that (the offense) is the bad news for the Spartans. There's a reason why many people think Michigan State can contend for the West division title in 2013, and that's the defense. Seven starters return, including two on the line. One who's not returning is defensive end William Gholston, a fourth round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His successor will be sophomore Shilique Calhoun. At 6'4" and 248 pounds, Calhoun isn't nearly as big as Gholston, but should be more athletic. In his limited time playing last year as a freshman, he had five quarterback hurries to tie for the team lead. At the other end is junior Marcus Rush (6'2" 250 pounds), a freshman all-American in 2011 who had 38 tackles last season. The interior line is probably a work in progress this season, but I suspect we'll see sophomore Lawrence Thomas (6'3" 300 pounds) emerge at nose tackle, though an offseason injury has limited his availability in preseason practice.
Seniors Denicos Allen (5'11" 215 pounds) and Max Bullough (6'3" 242 pounds) were both second team all-conference performers in 2011, and will undoubtedly be the strength of the Michigan State defense in 2013. Bullough led the Spartans with 111 tackles last season at middle linebacker, and should put up even bigger numbers this year. Don't be surprised if he takes a few snaps at tight end, considering the lack of depth on the other side of the ball at that position. Allen didn't match his sophomore numbers last season, but still totaled 79 tackles last season. Junior Taiwan Jones (6'3" 240 pounds) emerged at the star linebacker spot last season with 38 tackles; his development sent a 2011 honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree in Chris Norman to the bench.
The secondary will be led by senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard (5'11" 188 pounds). The cousin of former Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, Dennard was an honorable mention all-Big 10 selection in 2011 and first team in 2012. CBSsports.com ranks Dennard as the eighth best cornerback in the 2014 draft. Opposite Dennard, sophomores Trae Waynes (6'1" 178 pounds) and Arjen Colquhoun (6'1" 195 pounds) should be the leading candidates to replace Johnny Adams, a two time all-Big Ten honoree. Strong safety Isaiah Lewis (5'10" 200 pounds) was the second leading tackler with 80 last season, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. The free safety position could be an ongoing battle between junior Kurtis Drummond (6'1" 196 pounds), who had 53 tackles last season, and redshirt freshman Demetrious Cox (6'1" 199 pounds).
There's no doubt that Michigan State will be good on defense...the doubt is with the offense. Even with the awfulness of the Spartans' offense last season, some think that simple bad luck was Michigan State's biggest problem. The Spartans lost by 1 point to Ohio State, 3 points to Iowa (in double overtime), 2 points to Michigan, 3 points to Northwestern, and four points to Nebraska. If some of that luck reverses itself in 2013, Michigan State could rebound strongly. But that's assuming that the offense will be better, and without a dominant playmaker emerging offensively in 2013, that's unlikely to happen.