Spring football officially concluded Saturday afternoon with the White team edging the Green squad, 24-17, in the annual spring game.
The final score isn’t as important as it appears with first-team players scattered amongst both teams – so the main takeaways come primarily from individual performances.
Aside from a few brief highlights, the Spartans’ offense appeared to have progressed little since the public last saw it in December’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The defense appears to be on its way to another elite season, even without senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard and senior safety Isaiah Lewis playing, while the play-makers on offense still have yet to be determined. Head coach Mark Dantonio said he feels better about that unit heading into the fall this season than a year ago.
“We tried to get things accomplished. It’s never a perfect game,” Dantonio said. “If we play a perfect defensive game you’ve got a 3-3 tie out there. You play a perfect offensive game you’ve got a 28-28 tie so it flips back and forth.”
Sophomore Connor Cook was the most impressive of the three quarterbacks, going 10-for-26 for 217 yards and a score for the Green team. Senior Andrew Maxwell played for the White and went 9-of-20 for 110 yards and a score while redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor showed his youth in a 3-for-7 outing for 59 yards and two interceptions in action for both teams.
“You leave here at the end of spring saying — first of all I don’t know how much the spring game falls into this — but I think you leave here saying Maxwell comes into summer camp No. 1 based on knowledge, based on consistency in terms of performance,” Dantonio said.
“Connor Cook pushes him, and quite frankly Connor Cook doesn’t make mistakes that can be easily omitted. He’s right there.”
The Spartans struggled to run the ball consistently in closed scrimmages this spring, and still don’t have a definitive answer to replace the void left by Le’Veon Bell’s early departure to the NFL.
Converted linebacker Riley Bullough, a redshirt freshman, paced MSU with 48 yards on 11 carries. Junior Nick Hill, who entered the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, gained 24 yards on nine carries including a 7-yard touchdown run; junior Jeremy Langford had 31 yards and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins had 43 yards – 30 of which came on a speedy burst to the outside on his first touch of the day.
The coaching staff said afterward that Bullough has the tools and intelligence to remain in the offensive backfield past this spring. With three true freshmen running backs entering the mix this fall, however, it’s possible that his time as a ball-carrier is short-lived.
“The bottom line is this: We know we have to have a stable of running backs for our offense,” said Dave Warner, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach that served as head coach of the White team.
“… We feel we’ve got three or four right now with Riley in the mix and they’ll all get their opportunities.”
The defense made the early statement with a pair of touchdowns off of turnovers as the offenses gained traction.
After redshirt freshman kicker Kevin Cronin put the Green team up 3-0 in the first quarter, sophomore safety Chris Laneaux returned an O’Connor pass 25 yards for a touchdown and senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth took a Bullough fumble 41 yards to the house for a 14-3 White advantage.
“As you sit here as a defensive coach or a head coach, you obviously want to see a cleaner game than that,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, who coached the Green team. “And I don’t want to see any turnovers for touchdowns, personally, when we’re playing against each other.”
Cook responded by firing an impressive pass to junior wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett in double coverage for a 22-yard touchdown with 55 seconds left in the second quarter. The Green team pulled ahead 17-14 late in the third quarter with Hill’s short touchdown run.
The Green squad had a little fun in the third quarter when Riley Bullough took the hand-off, faked the run and pulled up to complete a 12-yard pass to his older brother, senior linebacker Max Bullough, who was lined up as a tight end.
“They repped that exactly zero times,” Narduzzi said. “That was obviously the highlight of the day, Bullough-to-Bullough.”
Sophomore wide receiver Aaron Burbridge was impressive for the Green squad, grabbing five balls for a team-high 113 yards. He was one of the more consistent and explosive receivers on Saturday as the group struggled with a handful of dropped passes.
Muma tied the game at 17 apiece with 6:11 left to play, and Maxwell found sophomore wide receiver A.J. Troup on a short pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown after Troup slipped the defender.
“That’s what’s most important, is you have to be able to regroup yourself if you have a slow start,” Maxwell said. “At halftime, we were able to regroup ourselves; I was able to regroup myself. The way we finished is what we’re working for, what we hope to have kind of all game. We had that drive that ended in the field goal and then obviously when Troup took the hitch to the end zone, that’s obviously a huge play and something that we needed. So we finished well and that’s what we’re proud of.”