Defense conquers in win, offense abysmal again
Football beat reporters Dillon Davis and Stephen Brooks break down the Spartans’ game against South Florida.
When asked about the facemask on his helmet earlier in the week, Shilique Calhoun said it’s part of his on-field persona. To the sophomore defensive end, the persona transforms him into Bane — the physically superior and mentally supreme supervillain of the Batman universe.
But speak of the devil and he shall appear.
Proving to be every bit as menacing as his on-field persona suggests, Calhoun scored a pair of touchdowns in a dominating defensive effort, leading the MSU football team to a 21-6 victory against South Florida on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
“All through camp, we discussed being able to score on defense,” Calhoun said. “Even if our offense is good, even if they are doing great, we want to be able to make that another aspect to our game, to be able to score on defense, to be able to score touchdowns.
“We were very excited for the challenge.”
After a lengthy weather delay forced the second evacuation of Spartan Stadium in a span of eight days, sophomore Connor Cook started the game for the Spartans, snapping a streak of 14 straight starts by senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Cook went 5-for-9 passing for 12 yards in the first half before being replaced by redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor at the end of the first quarter. Unfortunately, O’Connor didn’t fare much better, going 2-for-4 passing for 22 yards in the remainder of the half.
Evaluating the first start of his career, Cook said although he felt efficient running the ball, he wants to improve his passing game to give the team a better chance to win — a notion the entire stable of MSU quarterbacks will take to heart.
“I thought I did a decent job of running; I thought I was effective in the run game,” said Cook, who learned he would be starting on Monday. “I’ve just gotta be more accurate in my throws and I think everything will take care of itself.”
Calhoun’s first touchdown of the day came following a sack of USF quarterback Bobby Eveld by senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover in the second quarter. The ball came loose on the play, which allowed Calhoun to scoop it up and take it to the house to give the Spartans a 7-0 lead.
Head coach Mark Dantonio credited defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi for his strong play-calling on defense, which allowed Calhoun and others to gain an advantage against USF.
“Great play calls by Narduzzi, had great pressure throughout the entire day, negated their passing game, negated the running game for the most part,” Dantonio said. “They got some sprint draws on us, got to fix that up a little bit, but we played outstanding.”
USF kicker Marvin Kloss converted on a pair of field goals in the first half — one from 49 yards, the other from 21 yards — to send the Bulls into halftime trailing 7-6.
Dantonio turned the keys of the offense back to Maxwell to start the third quarter and he split repetitions with Cook for the duration of the second half.
The flip-flopping at the quarterback position was met with skepticism throughout the game, especially after an overall inconsistent performance by the offense against Western Michigan on opening night.
However, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said changing out the quarterbacks is a practice in figuring out which of the team’s gunslingers give the Spartans the best chance to get on the scoreboard.
“Andrew had some opportunities to try to get us in the end zone and didn’t happen, so we said, ‘Let’s make a change,’” Warner said. “We’re trying to find the spark. Again, it’s not all on those quarterbacks, but still at the same time, those guys gotta get us in the end zone someway, somehow.”
A failed MSU offensive drive to open the third quarter gave the ball to USF to go to work on its own 25-yard line. But it wouldn’t take look for the Bulls to give it right back.
With the Bulls driving across midfield to MSU’s 39-yard line, Calhoun picked off an Eveld pass and took it 56 yards for the touchdown to put the Spartans ahead 14-6.
Including his touchdown in the regular season opener against Western Michigan, Calhoun now has three of the MSU defense’s four touchdowns and was a critical contributor in another winning effort.
“Coach, as he says to the receivers, the first thing is to catch the ball,” Calhoun said. “And as I caught it, I looked around and I was like, ‘I can make it to the end zone again.’ It was another opportunity where I could make it to the end zone and I was pretty happy.”
MSU’s offense finally showed signs of life in the fourth quarter when junior running back Jeremy Langford punched the ball in from the 2-yard line, giving the Spartans some breathing room to work with down the stretch. During the first two weeks of action, the MSU offense has scored just two total touchdowns — and Langford has both of them.
Junior running back Nick Hill was MSU’s leading rusher for the day, taking nine carries for 63 yards, followed closely by Langford’s 38 yards on nine carries and redshirt freshman Riley Bullough’s 36 yards on six carries.
Maxwell finished the day as the team’s leading passer, collecting 40 yards on 4-of-9 passing from the field.
Given the constant shuffling at many of MSU’s skill positions, Hill said the coaches are looking to evaluate on each drive to find a consistent rhythm on offense.
“You produce, you play — at any position,” Hill said. “If that’s the wideout position, the quarterback, the running back; each and every single game is an evaluation. First and foremost, we need to win so I’m trying to make sure we get the ‘W’ and do the best I can do not just running the ball but in pass protection and route running and catching the ball.”
The upcoming week will be another one for evaluation before a Sept. 21 showdown in South Bend, Ind., against Notre Dame, as the Spartans are set to play Youngstown State next Saturday at Spartan Stadium (2 p.m., Big Ten Network).
“You got to give our football team a little bit of a compliment because we won it in the fourth quarter, we won it in the second half,” Dantonio said. “We came back and did what we had to do. We’ll get ready for next week.”