It was Sept. 9, Mark Dantonio and his Michigan State Spartans were resting easy as they were now 2-0 after wins over Boise State and Central Michigan to start the season.
The Spartans were No. 10 in the latest AP polls and had not a care in the world besides an No. 20 Notre Dame team that was coming to town the following Saturday. They looked like heavy favorites in the game and saw themselves rolling all over the Fighting Irish on their way to a 3-0 record.
That was not the case as Notre Dame toppled the Spartans at home 20-3 and keeping Le’Veon Bell in check by holding him to just 77 yards and giving junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell his first of many true tests on the year.
Although the Spartans were 2-1 following the loss to Notre Dame, optimism seemed to find its home in East Lansing. The Spartans would host Eastern Michigan in a confidence-booster following the loss, but the game seemed to dampen Michigan State fans’ hopes everywhere. They won the game, but went into halftime trailing to a team that was supposed to be put away after the first quarter.
Was this a sign of things to come? Yes, unfortunately it was.
They went on to lose five Big Ten games– three more than they have had combined in the previous two regular seasons combined. They lost five home games on the season and four straight conference home games– a number that shocked Dantonio and the Spartans, having lost six combined in the previous five seasons under the sixth-year head coach.
They are coming off a season in which they were one win short of the Rose Bowl, losing to Wisconsin in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. They lost a plethora of talent on offense– Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Edwin Baker, Keyshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, all of which made an NFL team in some form or another.
They were expected to be great again with Andrew Maxwell being a student of Kirk Cousins for two seasons, hoping to come in and pick up where he left off.
Although Maxwell is the Big Ten’s third leading passer with over 2,500 yards and 13 touchdowns, he has had his fair share of ups and downs. He has been highly criticized all season long because of his inconsistent play and poor throws, but in the end, he has developed into a leader that this team needs.
His accuracy numbers may not be very impressive– about 53 percent completion percentage and nine interceptions– but he still has a lot to learn.
Given this teams offensive potential with Le’Veon Bell as the conference’s leading rusher and Maxwell as one of the top passers in the conference, the team should be poised to focus on their weaknesses in the month leading up to their bowl game.
They will most likely be playing in the Dec. 29 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against a Big 12 opponent. If Dantonio can focus on the offensive side of the ball, the Spartans will end the season on a high note and carry this over into next season.
What are the Spartans losing on offense going into 2013? Just one player– offensive lineman Chris McDonald.
The defense isn’t the problem, as they are ranked at the top of the Big Ten in yards allowed and points per game. However, the defense knows that if the offense was on par with last year’s offense, they might have a chance to be 11-1 right now and be playing for a Big Ten title.
Max Bullough challenged the offense before the Minnesota game to move the ball and put up points because he knew that the defense would be able to do their job. Although getting into the endzone was still a problem for the Spartans, they scored 26 points, their fourth highest total on the season and accumulated over 420 yards of total offense.
“I just said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to put some points up,’” Bullough said. “Defense, we’re going to stop them. We have confidence in that.”
Bell may have took Bullough’s words to heart more than the rest of the offense, running the ball 36 times for an incredible 266 yards, boasting the second highest season rushing total in Spartan football history.
What did Bullough’s end of the bargain do? They held the Golden Gophers to just 96 yards and just seven first downs.
No matter what offensive struggles this team has had, they are going bowling for the sixth straight season under Dantonio. They deserved this win and with a year of improvement, 2013 could be a special year for this team.