Spartans to lean heavily on running game
The Spartans appear to be in for an offensive makeover this season.
Michigan State threw for more yards last year than anyone in the Big Ten with 3,535. But star quarterback Kirk Cousins is off to the NFL along with his favorite receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Dependable receiver Keith Nichol and starting tight end Brian Linthicum also are gone.
The Spartans won 11 games with a running game that was respected, but defensive coordinators certainly didn't lose any sleep over it. Only Iowa averaged fewer rushing yards per game than State, which averaged 137.9 per game.
However, instead of having a running game that just keeps teams honest, the Spartans could very well lean on the ground game this fall.
Doing so makes perfect sense because the passing game will require time to click, and the veteran talent is in place to take the running attack up a notch or two.
Andrew Maxwell has the full confidence of the coaching staff, but you never know about a quarterback until he produces consistently under pressure. And returning lettermen Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery have to prove they can fill the shoes of Cunningham and Martin at receiver
Their development will take time, and they could be clicking by midseason.
However, State appears to have the running game to move the ball as long as the passing game is good enough to be respected from the start.
Tailback Le'Veon Bell finished strong last season, averaging 86 yards per game over the final six and totaling 948 yards. He had 112 at Iowa and 106 against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game loss.
Bell is a strong runner in traffic, and that's necessary in the hard-hitting Big Ten.
The lone game in which Bell did not average over five yards per carry down the stretch was against Georgia in the Outback Bowl (he had 17 carries for 48 yards in Tampa). Though, two carries were touchdowns -- including the one-yarder that tied the score at 27-27 with 14 seconds left to force overtime.
And four of the five starting offensive linemen return: tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti, guard Chris McDonald and center Travis Jackson.
"I think we could have established the run last year and we did more in the second half of the season," said MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten.
He noted the stars of the passing game all moving onto the NFL and added, "We feel like things are going good right now. That's been our motto since the spring: 'Let's run the ball.'"
Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar wants balance, and that's only natural. True balance with quality production wins championships. That's what the Badgers did last season. They averaged 44.1 points last season, leaving even the potent University of Michigan (33.3 points) and MSU (31.0) attacks more than a touchdown and a field goal behind them in the average game.
Wisconsin rushed for 3,298 yards while passing for 3,280 yards. It very likely was the most balanced and powerful offense in conference history.
Roushar discussed putting together his 2012 offense, which debuts Aug. 13 against No. 22 Boise State in East Lansing.
"I think we will just take it one step at a time," he said. "We want to be balanced. But we know there are going to be times where everyone in the stadium knows we are going to throw it. And we have to throw it effectively. And there are going to be times where everyone knows we are going to run it, and we have to run it effectively. That is what we are striving for."
National championship teams are built on that premise: Here is what we are going to do -- try to stop us.
Whether the No. 13 Spartans run or pass, the offensive line is the constant.
"The other thing is you have seven guys who started on the offensive line," Roushar said.
Left guard Blake Treadwell started three games last season at center and is battling redshirt freshman Jack Allen for the one open spot on the line. Backup left tackle Skyler Burkland had three starts in 2011 at right tackle, and second-string center Ethan Ruhland had one start last year.
"There is cohesion," Roushar said of the linemen. "There is an understanding. They have been in game situations and they have a lot of experience to draw on from that. That is a real positive."
The only Spartan offensive lineman making All-Big Ten first- or second-team was outgoing senior Joel Foreman. McDonald was an honorable mention pick.
The success of this year's offense will hinge on two or three linemen performing well enough to get the kind of recognition Foreman demanded with his play.
If they do, Bell and backup tailback Larry Caper -- a Detroit Free Press Best of the Midwest pick while at Battle Creek Central -- could total well over 2,000 yards rushing.
That would be a makeover the Spartans most certainly can win big with.