Confounding QB switch for MSU in loss at Notre Dame
It wasn’t like Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland taking out Max Scherzer for Phil Coke with the game on the line.
But for Michigan State fans, Mark Dantonio going to quarterback Andrew Maxwell for the final possession of Saturday’s 17-13 loss to Notre Dame had to seem as though Coke was sprinting in from the bullpen.
Not that Connor Cook, making his third straight start, was pitching like Scherzer. Not hardly.
Cook -- who threw four touchdown passes in last week's win over Youngstown State -- was 16-of-32 for 135 yards with no interceptions and one touchdown pass.
“We put him (Maxwell) in there to try and change the pace,” Dantonio told reporters afterward. “Felt like he needed an opportunity.”
Cook felt differently.
“I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical position like that," he said.
Now, there’s some unrest to go with the unsettled situation.
Maxwell, the 2012 starter, hadn't played in two weeks, but with just over two minutes remaining and MSU getting one last possession 67 yards away from the end zone, he came into the game.
He proceeded to go 0-for-3 as the offense seemed to melt into the thick, green grass at Notre Dame Stadium.
Maxwell's first-down pass was inaccurate. Then he threw a pass too high for Aaron Burbridge and took a delay-of-game call on third down.
Lineman Jack Conklin was flagged for a false start, making it third-and-20.
That's a steep slope for a clicking offense. But for the Spartans -- who managed just a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Macgarrett Kings Jr. on Saturday -- it had to seem like a slippery slope that's surrounded with barbed wire.
Maxwell’s third-down pass appeared to get tipped and came in behind Bennie Fowler, who got a hand on it. That would’ve brought on fourth-and-long, even if it had been complete.
Finally, with 1:35 remaining, Maxwell ran out of the pocket under pressure and ended up with eight yards before outside linebacker Jaylon Smith tossed him out of bounds.
Throwing any kind of pass in any direction -- desperation or not -- would’ve been better. Maxwell’s career-long run is 10 yards, so there's no way he's picking up 20 yards.
If you were wearing green and white, it was the kind of series that probably had you flipping the nacho bowl.
At first, it seemed as if the quarterback switch was the result of an injury to Cook. He came off the field visibly favoring his right arm after taking a hit on the final play of the previous possession.
Dantonio's policy is not to describe injuries, and there's a competitive advantage to keeping the next opponent (Iowa on Oct. 5) guessing.
Neither Dantonio nor Cook said an injury factored into the decision to go to Maxwell.
Still, getting caught up in this move -- which Spartans fans are sure to do -- is missing the point.
The point is, the Spartans have, at best, a mediocre offense. The 3.9 yards per pass attempt was awful, and tailback Jeremy Langford’s 14 carries for 68 yards provided the offensive highlight, which is pretty sad.
Dantonio defines explosive plays as 15-yard runs and 20-yard passes. His offense had zero in that category.
Worse yet for the Spartans, this isn't a great Notre Dame defense like last year’s. Remember, Michigan scored 41 points on this same Irish defense earlier this month and won by 11 points.
“We played hard -- no question about it,” Dantonio said on his postgame radio show. "But again, you’ve got to score some touchdowns. We only did it one time.”
The defense produced three consecutive three-and-outs against the Irish late in the fourth quarter, but all MSU could get in the second half were a pair of Michael Geiger field goals.
Dantonio said that Geiger, a freshman, has replaced Kevin Muma, who shanked a 30-yarder.
Indecision has become a problem for Dantonio.
He’s shuffling quarterbacks again, and going to Maxwell caused the offense to take two penalties on the final series. Their timing had changed with a new quarterback barking signals, and they appeared scattered.
Now, the chants for freshman quarterback Damion Terry could well return -- and maybe some booing for Dantonio.
Dantonio folded his arms and gritted his teeth after taking off his headphones with the final seconds ticking away and then talked about correcting the flaws in his offense.
The harsh reality is, the Spartans don’t appear to have a quarterback capable of leading them to victory against good teams.