MSU ready to take on Broncos under the lights at Spartan Stadium
MSU football head coach Mark Dantonio discusses Friday’s matchup against Western Michigan.
When the lights go on in Spartan Stadium, fans have come to expect the MSU football team in primetime form.
A day of tailgating and fraternizing on campus leads fans to pour into Spartan Stadium and generate one of the nation’s most lively atmospheres.
And whether it’s quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 44-yard Hail Mary to Keith Nichol to beat Wisconsin in 2011 or wide receiver Blair White’s hook-and-ladder play to put MSU in a position to score in a losing effort to Iowa in 2009, the night game has become a popular staple for superior football in East Lansing.
Even in the shadow of a disappointing season in 2012, including a home loss to Notre Dame, then-junior running back Le’Veon Bell provided the season’s most superior highlight in primetime — hurdling Boise State safety Jeremy Ioane en route to rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-13 victory on opening night.
Illuminated by temporary stadium lights and the glow of multi-million dollar video boards, the Spartans kick off the regular season against Western Michigan on Friday night at Spartan Stadium (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell hands off the ball to junior running back Nick Hill during practice Aug. 14, 2013, at the practice field outside Duffy Daugherty Football Building. Julia Nagy/The State News
Head coach Mark Dantonio watches practice Aug. 9, 2013, at the practice field outside Duffy Daugherty Football Building. Julia Nagy/The State News
“The history of what (Fleck’s) done is based on his résumé as an assistant where he’s been. We’ve looked deep into those areas, both offensively, defensively and special teams,” MSU football head coach Mark Dantonio said.
“Obviously, there’s some things that we don’t know about Western as they come into this game.”
Max-imize the opportunity
Few were surprised the major question coming into the regular season was about the quarterback position.
After struggling for much of 2012, senior Andrew Maxwell he’d be coming into fall camp battling for his job with sophomore Connor Cook. However, Maxwell ended up with a little more competition than he could have expected.
Earlier this week, Dantonio released his depth chart for the season opener, slotting Maxwell as the co-starter at quarterback along with Cook, redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor and freshman Damion Terry.
Maxwell will get the first crack at starting for the Spartans and said he feels confident stepping back into the top spot.
“I’m excited we can kind of put all of that past us and we can focus on putting points on the scoreboard and winning the game right now,” Maxwell said. “That’s what’s really important. That’s what we want the story to be, that’s where we want the focus to be.”
Maxwell replaced Spartan great Kirk Cousins in 2012 and threw for 2,606 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. And when the offense struggled during the 7-6 campaign, Maxwell caught much of the blame from the media and fans.
Speaking of the opportunity to play afforded to each of his quarterbacks, Dantonio said the key for Maxwell is to stay productive and keep the offense moving down the field.
“Giving the keys to the car to somebody, they’ve got to bring it back full,” Dantonio said. “What that means is you have to move the football, move our football team, we need to be successful.”
Fleck of the wrist
P.J. Fleck had a decision to make.
A former standout wide receiver at Northern Illinois, Fleck signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 2004. Buried on the depth chart and marred with a shoulder injury, then-49ers head coach Mike Nolan made the decision to cut Fleck in 2006, but offered him an opportunity to stay on as an assistant coach.
With an opportunity on the table to continue his playing career or take the coaching opportunity with the 49ers, Fleck decided to consult his wife, Tracie, before moving forward with any decision.
But then, Fleck received an unexpected phone call from Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel — a call that changed Fleck’s life forever.
“We decided a break away from the NFL would be the best thing for us instead of coaching players that I just got done competing with,” Fleck said, having been offered a position on Tressel’s staff. “A few days later, we were in Columbus, a few days before training camp.
“Within that short amount of time, I was able to capture everything Jim Tressel had to offer and I felt like that place truly made me who I am today.”
Now, as the youngest head coach in Division I football with Western Michigan, Fleck said he owes a lot to an opportunity given to him by Tressel, which also draws similarities to MSU’s coaching staff.
Dantonio as well as co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and linebackers and special teams coach Mike Tressel — nephew of Jim Tressel — have ties to the Ohio State program. And according to Fleck, there’s a specific code of conduct that comes along with it.
“When you look at everybody who has coached for Jim Tressel or went through the Ohio State program, there’s a class about them,” Fleck said. “There’s a certain class, there’s a certain integrity and way you respect the game. And I think Mark Dantonio is no different.”
One small step
After opening up 2012 as the No. 13 team in the nation, the Spartans enter a new season with plenty to prove as they open unranked and largely ignored in preseason Big Ten rankings. And for several players, it’s caused a distinctive chip on their shoulders, with expectations still being the Big Ten’s top team and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl — a place the program hasn’t been since 1988.
With the shortcomings of 2012 in mind, the team has brought a different mentality to fall practice.
“We’re really excited,” senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler said. “You can tell (by) the way we’re practicing. Everyone’s practicing with a chip on their shoulder because last year was not what we wanted. We still got a lot of dreams and goals to accomplish as a program, so that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
Beyond Western Michigan, the Spartans round out the regular season non-conference schedule with South Florida, Youngstown State and Notre Dame, respectively, before opening up Big Ten play on Oct. 5 against Iowa. MSU takes on in-state rival Michigan on Nov. 2.
Much of the hype of the conference surrounds the Buckeyes and the No. 17 Wolverines, who are set for a Nov. 30 showdown.
But regardless of hype, senior running back Nick Hill said the Spartans are the team to beat with a journey that starts against the Broncos on Friday night.
“We’re the team to beat,” Hill said. “I don’t believe in Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan — I don’t believe in all that hype. The bottom line is, they have to beat us.
“When you hit that field, you better strap up your cleats, you better tighten up your helmet, because it’s game time and you better bring everything you’ve got because you best believe we will.”