EAST LANSING, Mich. – It’s pretty plain and simple for Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Either he can become creative and get the Spartans on the scoreboard more than last year – when they ranked 10th in Big Ten scoring – or the job will no longer be his.
Connor Cook, the playmaker who came off the bench to lead MSU on the drive for Dan Conroy’s game-winning field goal in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, is breathing down his neck.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor is making strides, while true freshman Damion Terry has all the skills and lacks only experience.
“We have four guys with big-time talent,” Dantonio said of his quarterbacks. “They can throw the ball 60 yards on a rope. What they do in terms of decision-making and creativity will define them.”
Dantonio said he plans to play both Maxwell and Cook, a redshirt sophomore, in order to avoid having a quarterback with limited experience starting next season.
It goes beyond that. Dantonio has a defense capable of winning the Big Ten championship, but the Spartans exceeded 20 points offensively only three times in conference games. Dantonio likes to point to “those inches” as the difference in a 7-6 season. It was almost always a case of the offense falling short.
Maxwell is well aware of his central role in those results, and accepts the fact that the job is his to keep or relinquish.
“Competition never hurts,” Maxwell said Monday during the team’s media day at Spartan Stadium. “It brings out the best in people and it brings out excitement.”
He’s trying to change and go outside the box.
Maxwell recalled an instance when doing so could have made all the difference in what he called his worst moment last year – the loss to Michigan because a first down couldn’t be produced with time running out in the fourth quarter.
“We’re up by one point with about 2:40 to go, and we go three-and-out,” Maxwell said. “On second down, maybe if I run and get a first down, we win. But it was a pass play that didn’t develop how I’d hoped, and maybe I erred on the side of caution because we were at the 8-yard line. On third down, there’s a screen play that doesn’t develop. So, we kick away.”
The Wolverines got the ball back with two minutes to play, drove 41 yards, and won 12-10 on a 38-yard Brendan Gibbons field goal.
“It was heart-breaking,” Maxwell said. “It’s a game you circle on your calendar all year. But it was valuable in that we have that experience to look at what we can do differently.”
Dave Warner, the quarterback coach who will now call the plays as co-defensive coordinator, remembered that second-down play in Ann Arbor.
“It was a great call by Dan Roushar,” Warner said, referring to the former offensive coordinator now with the New Orleans Saints. “Andrew moved in the pocket and the receiver did not get free at first. And then Andrew played it safe and led (Aaron Burbridge) too much.”
Dantonio had quarterbacks play “live” more in spring practices to make them vulnerable to hits in order to improve their split-second reactions while on the run.
Maxwell said that helped him. I asked Warner if Maxwell has become more creative.
Warner hesitated for an instant, and said, “Uh … time will tell. It’s hard to get a real feel without pads on.”
The Spartans began practicing in shorts Saturday, and have their first full-contact practice on Wednesday.
“Our quarterbacks offer us different things,” Warner said, “but we’re going to evaluate who’s getting us in the end zone. The bottom line is, we did not score enough points last year.”
Maxwell has tended to practice better than he plays, and the reverse is true of Cook. That’s why Dantonio figures to play both and let the winner surface in games – the first of which is Aug. 30 in East Lansing with Western Michigan.
Maxwell completed 53 percent of 446 passes for 2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He ranked fourth in the conference in passing yards per game (200.5) to easily exceed Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Michigan’s Denard Robinson.
But while those two caused defensive coordinators fits with creativity and touchdown runs, Maxwell lost 106 yards rushing with sacks added. His longest run was 10 yards.
Creativity was completely lacking.
“Last year, it was a challenge to replace the greatest quarterback in the history of the university,” Maxwell said of his mentor, Kirk Cousins, now with the Washington Redskins.
This year, it’s about determining what his legacy will be. He says he’s up to the challenge, and offensive tackle Fou Fonoti agreed.
“I can see a difference in Andrew,” said Fonoti, the unit’s spiritual leader. “You can see that every day in his demeanor. I have all the confidence in the world that Max is going to put us in a great position to score and win this year.”