Not to say Michigan State’s offense was a punch line at this point last season, but minus a lopsided game against an FCS opponent, the Spartans’ defense was actually scoring more touchdowns.
In three nonconference games against FBS competition, the 2013 Spartans scored more defensive touchdowns (four) than offensive touchdowns (three).
Against those teams, Michigan State had all of four plays from scrimmage of more than 20 yards, and none longer than 26. Its starting quarterback, Connor Cook, was pulled for the final drive against Notre Dame, and his backup fared no better in a frustrating 17-13 loss.
A year later, nobody’s joking about Michigan State’s offense, and Cook points to the Spartans’ first Big Ten Conference game last season, following a bye week, which helped begin turning the tide.
Cook threw for a career-high 277 yards, including completions of 36 and 46 yards, in a 26-14 victory at Iowa. That was the start of a 12-game winning streak, a Big Ten Conference championship and Rose Bowl victory.
“That’s when our offense came to life and we kind of knew what we were capable of, and what kind of plays we could make,” Cook said in a phone interview. “After that, we continued to get better, got the rock rolling and week by week got better and better.”
Now No. 10 Michigan State (3-1) enters its Big Ten Conference opener on Saturday against No. 19 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0) again coming off a bye week, only this time with far fewer offensive concerns.
The Spartans are averaging a Big Ten-best 50.3 points per game, have scored 50 points or more in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978, and have scored touchdowns on 13 of 15 first-half possessions over their last two games, convincing victories over Eastern Michigan and Wyoming.
Skeptics could point to the national rankings in total defense of Michigan State’s three FBS opponents this season — Eastern Michigan (No. 116, 499.3 yards), Oregon (No. 75, 443.5 yards) and Wyoming (No. 74, 403 yards) — as reason to doubt whether the juggernaut label should be slapped on the Spartans offense just yet.
“But we have been executing, playing very well on the offensive side of the ball, and I think it shows,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I don’t care who you play, when you put up 72 points or 73 points, that’s a lot of production. Same with the output this past week (against Wyoming)."
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Cook, a 6-foot-4, 218-pound junior, is a big reason behind the production. He leads the Big Ten with a 69.2 completion percentage, and with a 192.3 pass efficiency rating that’s third-best among FBS quarterbacks.
“He has a great arm. He fits balls in very tight windows,” Nebraska cornerback Daniel Davie said. “He gives his receivers a chance to make plays on the ball, even if they’re not wide open. You have to be prepared for him. We have to make plays on the ball.”
Michigan State boasts big, physical receivers in Tony Lippett (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), Keith Mumphrey (6-1, 211), Aaron Burbridge (6-1, 201) and AJ Troup 6-2, 218), led by Lippett’s 22 receptions for a Big Ten-best 105.2 yards per game.
And if you can detect some strong chemistry between Cook and his receivers, there’s a reason.
“I think it goes back to the work we put in over the offseason,” Cook said. “I’ve said numerous times before, I haven’t put in as many numerous hours as I have, that I’ve never worked this hard, as I did this summer.
“It started with me and Tony Lippett and all the other guys below him. We came out pretty much every single day throwing, and the guys were always up and ready to do it, whether it was in the morning, in the night, whatever it was, they were up and they were ready.”
From timing to accuracy to pass protection — the Spartans have allowed only three sacks in 110 passing attempts — Dantonio said the passing game is executing very well.
It's also benefited from a rushing attack that totaled 336 and 338 yards, respectively, in Michigan State's last two games.
“As far as where we're at as an offensive football team, we’re doing the things we need to do,” Dantonio said. “We’re making the catches, we have not turned the football over, we’re not beating ourselves too often.”