It was dropped.
One play in, things seemed different, yet the same. At one points, the defenses were outscoring the offenses 14-3. The spring game is the third scrimmage, but with divided teams. So it's important not to make any sweeping declarations. But it's the only public look at what could be in 2013, and it is important to see how players look in game situations. The White team won 24-17, helped by two defensive touchdowns. (Box score)
Going back to my five things to watch, here are my thoughts on the spring game.
1. Does any quarterback stick out?
Not really. I thought Connor Cook was the best of the three, but no one proved with absolute certainty they should be the starter. Dantonio said after the game that Andrew Maxwell is still No. 1, but I imagine the competition will continue in the fall.
Maxwell: 9-for-20, 110 yards, 1 TD
Cook: 10-for-26, 217 yards, 1 TD
Tyler O'Connor: 3-for-7, 59 yards, 2 INTs
O'Connor had some good throws, but also some bad ones, including an interception when it appeared he was throwing the ball away. The redshirt freshman needs another year before contending for the job, which is fine.
The most notable thing when you look at Maxwell's and Cook's stats are the yards per completion. Cook nearly doubled-up Maxwell in yardage with one more completion. It could have been even more if Aaron Burbridge didn't drop a touchdown, though about 100 of those yards came on two catch-and-runs by Aaron Burbridge and Bennie Fowler. When we last saw him in the bowl game, Cook's final numbers weren't great, but he looked poised and just seemed to make plays when they were needed. That happened again Saturday. Throw in some drops, and Cook is probably at 50 percent completions. That's not great, but it'd be more indicative of his play.
He played behind an offensive line completely made up of backups and looked comfortable. When things broke down, he was able to scramble and keep plays alive. That's something the coaches wanted.
Maxwell wasn't bad, especially when you throw in some drops, but it still felt like more of the same: short, safe passes. He completed three straight passes for 15, 15 and nine yards to end the third quarter, but the fourth started with running plays and some short passes.
To oversimplify things, I was excited when Green got the ball and Cook was under center. I knew big plays were a legitimate possibility. I knew he might scramble to keep a play alive. Cook's Green offense outscored Maxwell's White 17-14, with O'Connor making all but one of his passes for Green. Cook had the better receivers, but the worse offensive line. Again, I don't want to base everything off the spring game, especially since it appeared Maxwell outplayed Cook in the other scrimmages, but Cook needs to have a shot in the fall. If the coaches want to start with Maxwell, it's understandable, but he can't have a long leash.
Final probably meaningless spring QB stats:Maxwell: 61.5 comp%, 6.5 yds/att, 10.5 yds/compCook: 45.5, 6.5, 14.2O'Connor: 46.2, 8.8, 19.1— KJ (@KJatTOC) April 21, 2013
TD-INT ratios:Maxwell 5-0Cook 1-1O'Connor: 1-2Cook got nearly as many pass attempts as Maxwell did (55 vs. 65; 26 for O'Connor).— KJ (@KJatTOC) April 21, 2013
The coaches don't like Cook's mistakes, but it's hard to deny he can make the big plays. Last year, MSU was No. 93 in plays of 30+ yards, No. 90 in 40+, and they didn't have a play of 50+ yards (one of two teams to have zero). If they don't have a great running game, which I suspect they won't, you have to be able to make big plays in the passing game. Otherwise you get what happened last year.
Maxwell only makes sense to me if you're going to spread the field and really take advantage of his arm.— KJ (@KJatTOC) April 20, 2013
As KJ pointed out, I don't foresee a situation where Cook is given all the reps as the season starts. But Maxwell will have to prove he doesn't deserve to be pulled. He's going to have to make plays.
As for Damion Terry, I really, really don't see a true freshman coming in the summer/fall and doing enough to earn a job or even get in the mix. I see the coaches going for it even less, but you never know, I guess.
2. Can they run the ball at all?
Running behind the offensive line of backups on Green, Riley Bullough had 46 yards on 11 carries (4.2 YPC) and was the best back. He doesn't have great speed, but he seemed to recognize holes and hit them with power. Riley did fumble once, and it was returned for a touchdown. Bullough also had a completion to Max Bullough, so he's probably part of the trick play package.
Jeremy Langford had some nice carries to start the game for White. He finished with 31 yards on 10 carries. When there was a hole, he could hit it quickly, but when there wasn't, he couldn't do much. That's what he does. He's a speed back.
As for the other backs, Nick Hill had 21 yards on nine carries with a touchdown for Green, while Nick Tompkins had 43 yards on four carries, including a 30-yard gain, for White.
As for the offensive line, it wasn't great, and I admit I didn't watch it that closely. The White offensive line included some starters and gave up three sacks, while the backup Green line allowed two sacks, though having the more mobile quarterback helped. Jack Conklin looked pretty good, from what I did see.
Overall, not great in the running game, but that's also behind incomplete offensive lines. It's been said a ton, but R.J. Shelton, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams all will have a shot for playing time in the fall. Langford and Tompkins have big-play ability, but Bullough, like Le'Veon Bell, always seems to fall forward. This will be running back-by committee in the fall, and just hope they can run enough to keep the defense honest.
3. Does anyone look like a reliable receiver?
I mentioned drops in the QB question, but I counted about nine total, which was not good to see. It doesn't matter who the quarterback is if the receivers can't hold onto the ball.
MSU had a plethora of solid receivers, but they need some guys to be great receivers. Burbridge did that on Saturday, with five catches for 113 yards. Kirk Cousins said in the analyst booth that Fowler should be the No. 1 receiver, but I respectfully disagree. Burbridge has the most talent on this team and is the most reliable guy. He still needs to grow (had the TD drop I mentioned, and that came after a fumble that Dantonio overruled), but MSU needs guys who make plays, and Burbridge does.
As for other receivers, Fowler had four catches for 84 yards, though 63 came on one play. Keith Mumphrey had five catches for 40 yards, DeAnthony Arnett (!) had two for 30 yards, including a nice touchdown catch, Kyle Kerrick had two for 24, and A.J. Troup had one for a 46-yard touchdown on a catch and run.
As for the tight ends, not one had a single catch. There was one 8-yard catch by Evan Jones, but it was called back by a holding penalty. That's not good at all. It puts even more pressure on the receivers and quarterbacks because there isn't much of a safety valve.
**With regards to the offense, it was really interesting to see MSU play almost exclusively in the shotgun in the first half and part of the second. I said last year that MSU should have played more in the gun, given the poor blocking and lack of tight end options outside of Dion Sims. It allows the running back to find a hole, rather than hit one spot where MSU hopes one will be, and it lets the quarterback look downfield quicker. I know it was just the spring, but that, along with some interesting formations, hopefully show that there really are some changes in this offense with the new coordinators.
I have no idea what to call this formation that splits the RB out wide and motions him sweeping into a I form look, but it's working.— Heck Dorland (@HeckAtTOC) April 20, 2013
I don't know if everyone forgot MSU's Spring Overthrowpalooza of 2012 that ended 14-2, but today's offense was more encouraging I thought.— Heck Dorland (@HeckAtTOC) April 20, 2013
3. The kicking situation
Kevin Muma and Kevin Cronin each made a 30-yard field goal, so not much there. Dantonio seemed to say before Saturday that Cronin was No. 1. The No. 1 kicking recruit, Michael Geiger, also comes in this summer.
Muma averaged 59 yards on his kickoffs, while Cronin was at 54.5 yards, so I imagine Muma will keep doing the kickoffs either way.
5. Finding starting defensive tackles
This is hard to determine, because they went up against various offensive linemen, but Micajah Reynolds had two tackles (one TFL), Lawrence Thomas had three tackles and a pass breakup and Mark Scarpinato had two tackles. I thought Thomas looked pretty good. If I had to guess, I'd go with Thomas and Tyler Hoover has the starting defensive tackles, but several guys will be rotate. MSU will need more disruption from this position than they had a year ago.
**As for the defense as a whole, this very well could be MSU's best defense under Dantonio. The back seven of Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Taiwan Jones, Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes and Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond should be among the best in the nation, and backup defensive backs Ezra Robinson, Jermaine Edmondson, Mylan Hicks and RJ Williamson are all very talented. The back four is going to be very good for some time at MSU.
Up front, Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush should be very good defensive ends, with Denzel Drone and Joel Heath behind them, and I already mentioned the tackles. Given the lack of powerful offenses on MSU's schedule, the defense should again rank near the top of the nation in most categories.
**As for injuries, Robinson (knee) and Calhoun (ankle) and Kodi Kieler all left the game, but the coaches said all should be OK, so that's good.
**Chrome helmets are now 1-1 after the White team won with them today.
**Cousins was a terrific analyst. He seemed really polished, wasn't making mistakes and was confident. You wouldn't know this was his debut. Hopefully he has a long NFL career, but I'd be shocked if he doesn't end up in a TV booth afterward.
**So we head into the summer with not many questions answered in the spring. Looking at the schedule, eight wins should be considered the minimum, and if the offense can find enough playmakers and just be average, a double-digit-win season is very possible. But we're going to have to see it before we can believe it.