EAST LANSING - Michigan State must be ready for two QBs and a quality third-down offense, Saturday against Northwestern
Northwestern (7-3) ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in third down offense, converting at 46.3 percent. They're doing it with the first two-quarterback system that the Spartans have faced this year, and also the most unpredictable offense on MSU schedule.
"Most teams on third and three-to-six yards, it's 80 percent pass," said Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel. "With Northwestern, they got you rolling the dice a little bit. So they do a good job of that."
Michigan State is 4-1 against Northwestern in the Mark Dantonio era. The only MSU loss came in 2007, Dantonio's first season. Northwestern beat Michigan State 48-41 in overtime and was ridiculously successful on third down that day, using a pass-first spread offense to convert 13-of-19.
Michigan State was quite a bit slower in the slot area in 2007 than in 2012, and Northwestern is more run-oriented now than in '07, but third down defense remains a key in this year's matchup.
The Spartans are preparing for the run-oriented version of Northwestern's spread offense behind speedy QB Kain Colter, and also tag team partner Trevor Siemian, who is more of a throwing QB.
"It's harder to play against two (than one)," Tressel said. "But they have to split their practice reps too. Their advantage is they know how much they are going to play one or the other."
Colter (6-0, 190, Jr., Denver, Col.) is the team's second-leading rusher, with 704 yards and 11 rushing TDs.
Simien (6-3, 210, Soph., Windermere, Fla.) has netted just 30 yards rushing this year.
Meanwhile, Simien has attempted 170 passes compared to 103 for Colter. They have combined for 1,631 yards passing, ranking No. No. 8 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency.
"There is a little more option game when Colter is in there and a little more controlled passing game when Simien is in there, but you see them do a little bit of each," Tressel said.
"We don't have two different gameplans (for each QB)," Tressel added. "but there needs to be awareness of who is in at quarterback. You hope that the guys on the field are aware of who's out there. As coaches, though, we can't have Gameplan A and Gameplan B because in the midst of a game it is too hard to switch a flip as a player from two different gameplans."
The Latest At Linebacker
Much is being written about Chris Norman this week for Senior Day. The 'star' linebacker lost his starting job to sophomore Taiwan Jones at midseason and has remained loyal to the program throughout.
Minor injuries slowed Norman in late September and through much of October. But Norman delivered some good collisions two weeks ago against Nebraska and is a good bet to play with an iron will on Saturday against Northwestern in a supporting capacity.
"He played fast against Nebraska and he has practiced fast," Tressel said. "He actually hasn't been 100 percent healthy, where he would want to be for his senior year. But I think he is right there, right now, practicing fast. He sure looks good.
"Chris will have a great last couple of games."
Jones might match up better against Northwestern than Norman. Jones was fantastic in the slot area against Indiana, whose offense most closely resembles Northwestern, among MSU's Big Ten foes. But Norman is sure to get some game reps, and possibly even a starting call.
"Chris wants what's best for Michigan State," Tressel said. "Taiwan Jones is a great football player; Chris is a great football player. And we want to be in that situation.
"With Chris Norman and Taiwan Jones, we should have a natural rotation there with no step back no matter who's on the field."
Reserves At The Ready
With the way Northwestern plays uptempo, no-huddle football, combined with their backfield speed and ability to stretch defenses on the perimeter with option keepers and pitches, Tressel says it's vital for the Spartans to have a second unit of linebackers ready.
"You could see Northwesten's game plan (last week against Michigan) was to run sideline to sideline, get Michigan's guys worn down," Tressel said. "They ran 21 options against Michigan. So we need to be prepared for that. As a linebackers coach I need to have a second group of linebackers ready to play bal because effort and pursuit is how you stop the option. You need 11 guys running."
Allen has been rock solid most of the year, but he seemed to be down a notch in the octane level against Nebraska, which marked MSU's 10th straight game without a bye week. MSU expects a revived Allen this week. But his back-up is closer to expanding his role than ever.
"I have told Ed Davis that my plan is to have a rotation in place but it is up to you during this week of practice whether or not you want to do that," Tressel said. "So that's my plan, prove that I'm right, because it's on you.
"You have to be prepared with that, and go with the flow. It depends on how many long drives they have."
That gets back to the third-down defense.
"Guys are not going to tell me they're tired," Tressel said. "I need to be prepared to have a guy rest even if he says he feels good. I need to feel comfortable saying, 'Denicos, you're going to be better at the end if you sit down right now. Denicos, I know you're not tired (wink, wink). Ed's in this series.'"
Ed Davis, On The Cusp
Davis (6-3, 220, Fr., Detroit Southeastern) played late in the victory over Wisconsin, and saw a snap or two in the nickel defense as a blitzer against Michigan. He has looked quick and potentially explosive.
"I feel comfortable with Ed in the game," Tressel said. "It's not about Ed. Ed's growth has been great. My challenge is I need to feel comfortable taking Denicos off the field."
Junior defensive end William Gholston has made some expensive errors in edge containment this season, including one which led to a game-changing 35-yard TD run by Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez on a fake toss sweep naken keeper. Martinez's fourth-quarter TD run reduced a 10-point MSU lead to 3.
As this week's defensive representative to the media, Tressel was asked about Gholston.
"The challenge at defensive end is you want him to turn it loose and be aggressive, not over-think about contain, but yet you have to do your job and that's a challenge for Will," Tressel said. "We want him to be free but you don't want those guys running around on the perimeter, either. We've seen a lot of third-down conversions on quarterback scrambles. It's a fine line."
Max Bullough said on Tuesday that he and other players felt better and played with fewer creaks and pains than in recent weeks, thanks to the bye week. Tressel has noticed a little more jump this week.
"I think the guys are amped up," Tressel said. "The speed of practice has been very good."
MSU ranks No. 8 in the Big Ten in kickoff return average and No. 6 in punt return average.
Tressel, who oversees both units, wants more.
"We have not had the number of big plays we need to have (in the return game)," Tressel said. "The field position we have had based on special teams has been solid but we have not had the game-changers that we need to have. Now is the time to crank it up."
Nick Hill (kickoff return) and A.J. Sims (punt return) might not seem as explosive as recent Spartan returners, including Keshawn Martin and Devin Thomas. But Tressel believes MSU is fine in the personnel department.
"Eleven guys have to believe, and if that's the case then we have the personnel," he said. "There needs to be confidence. When Keshawn Martin is back there and everyone believes, they go that much harder. When the guys weren't believing or giving 100 percent effort Keshawn wasn't gaining a yard either and there were stints of that. And then all the sudden he pops one for 15 and everyone remembers, 'Oh man we can make big plays' and then they go harder."
MSU Simplified Offense
Quarterbacks coach Dave Warner (film below) acknowledged that Michigan State has simplified things on offense to account for some youthful inexperience at the wide receiver positions this year.
"We have simplified a little bit just in the area of formations and motions and things like that, trying to keep it easy for guys to know what to do, when to do it," Warner said. "More than anything we probably found out how important experience was at the skill positions overall. We probably took that a little bit for granted last year."
MSU graduated three key senior WRs after last year's 11-3 season in B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin.
"Some of the younger receivers - just trying to get those guys to move along and know what to do - we have tried to keep that simple for them," Warner said.
Fowler and Lippett have since found a groove. Burbridge continues to learn too, but he had to start from a deficit.
"He missed July because he had to take summer school courses and then he got hurt in August, so he kind of doubled up on missed time," Warner said. "That kind of hurt right there. He was playing catch-up.
The Latest On Maxwell
Few QBs have completed more than 50 percent of their passes against Nebraska's sticky defense, and MSU's Andrew Maxwell was the latest to struggle with his numbers. The junior is coming off his worst statistical game of the year, at 9-of-27 for 123 yards against Nebraska. But he avoided major mistakes, didn't throw an interception and protected a lead most of the game. But he didn't make enough plays to help put MSU over the top.
"I think he played well," Warner said. "He played better in the second half. Again, I think there is inconsistency there. There is inconsistency in Andrew and inconsistency in our offense and that's where we have to improve."
Warner said sometimes an incompletion is the right decision.
"He threw the ball away four times," Warner said. "The time you throw the ball away, that's avoiding sacks and negative plays and that's part of being a team player.
"He had two or three drops, a couple batted at the line of scrimmage. I look at an accuracy percentage as well as a completion percentage and his accuracy percentage is what you look at. It was in the upper 60s (percentage-wise)."
Warner on the receivers as a whole: "I think they've grown. When you are playing young guys like that and it's their first time under the gun, they have gotten better each week. They have caught the ball better and they have a better understanding of what we are trying to do offensively. But there is still a lot of room for us to get better out there offensively and that's what we are hoping for this week."
Mike Tressel's update from Wednesday:
QBs coach Dave Warner's update on Andrew Maxwell's progress and the challenges of the passing game: