EAST LANSING, Mich. — Having the Big Ten’s top rusher and leading the conference in total defense usually is a recipe for success.
The last time it happened at Michigan State before this season was 1987. Lorenzo White ran for 1,459 yards, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, and combined with the conference’s stingiest defense (184.5 yards per game) to lead the Spartans to the Big Ten championship and their last trip to the Rose Bowl.
State tailback Le’Veon Bell topped the conference with 1,648 yards this season, and the defense allowed 274.1 yards per game to pace the Big Ten while ranking fourth in the country.
But instead of packing their bags for Pasadena, Calif., these Spartans finished 6-6 and are likely headed to all the pageantry and tradition that is the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
So what in the world happened? How did a team with such a splendid runner and formidable defense end up fourth in the Big Ten’s Legends Division at 3-5?
There’s no simple answer. It boiled down to simply finding a way to lose.
State lost five conference games by a combined total of 13 points and found little to hang its hat on. The Spartans had just two signature wins: At Wisconsin in overtime and a ranked Boise State in the season opener, which was in East Lansing.
It was a dropped pass here and a personal foul there. It was a missed field goal here, an overthrown pass there, an ill-timed fumble here and a game-ending interception there.
As solid as the defense was, it failed to make many game-changing plays. Nobody in green and white finished in the conference’s top 20 in sacks or top 10 in interceptions.
But the defense did lead the Big Ten with 16.3 points and 100.4 rushing yards allowed per game. So the defensive unit, led by three All-Big Ten first-team picks in middle linebacker Max Bullough and cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, can’t be blamed.
Defensive end William Gholston was a disappointment, though. He was merely good instead of the anticipated great. Many believed he would be the conference’s dominant defender, yet he was no better than honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team voted on by head coaches.
What it came down to was this: State had a one-man offense. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan each were able to hold Bell well to fewer than 100 yards by keying on him. Take away Bell, and the Spartans were virtually hopeless.
While Bell led the nation with 350 carries, the rest of the team carried the ball 95 times — for 177 yards. That’s an amazing reliance on one runner.
Punter Mike Sadler was fifth on the team with 26 yards rushing on one fake punt, and a fullback didn’t get one carry all season. Backup tailback Larry Caper rushed for 108 yards.
Heaven help the Spartans in 2013 should Bell bolt for the NFL … which is likely.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell is taking much of the brunt for the offensive failures. Although he deserves his share of the blame, Maxwell wasn’t the main reason why this offense failed.
The offensive line was average at best without one true impact blocker. Guard Chris McDonald received honorable mention on the All-Big Ten teams, and that was it.
Losing right tackle and inspirational leader Fou Fonoti to a foot stress fracture the week of the Notre Dame game hurt for sure. Center Travis Jackson (MCL injury, broken leg) also was lost in the Big Ten opener with Ohio State.
Although losing players to injuries impacted the cohesiveness, I don’t think this line was anything special with them. It wasn’t like the line exceled on run-blocking; Bell led the nation with 834 yards after making contact with a defender.
The wide receivers didn’t distinguish themselves, and often combined for several drops. Bennie Fowler tied Keith Mumphery for the lead with 41 receptions and was tops with 524 yards and four touchdowns. Mumphery and Tony Lippett combined for 76 catches but only three TDs.
When the tight end (Dion Sims) leads the team in yards-per-catch total, it’s a sign there isn’t a deep threat. Although I do like the big-play potential freshman Aaron Burbridge exhibited at times.
Sims, a junior missed three games with an ankle injury, and still had 33 catches for 451 yards (13.7 average) and two touchdowns. He has speed, power, sure hands — and could be headed to the NFL.
Maxwell very well could lose his only two dependable weapons next season. … That’s a scary thought.
The junior threw for 2,578 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, which included several tipped balls. His low completion percentage (52.9) and efficiency rating (108.92) were the main concerns.
Maxwell forced and overthrew too many passes. He appeared to turn the corner in the Wisconsin game, but then sputtered the rest of the way.
I’m afraid that his biggest problems can’t be corrected. It’s very hard for a quarterback to make plays at this level without truly quick feet or speed … Maxwell has neither.
That’s how a team ranked No. 13 entering the season ended up barely bowl-eligible — and how these Spartans became so forgettable.