LINCOLN — Nine games into a frustrating, perplexing season for Michigan State's football team, there's little to recommend about the offense. It ranks 96th nationally in total yards and 108th in points.
But there is a stat in the Spartans' favor: time of possession. Thirty-three minutes of it.
Michigan State leads the Big Ten and keeps national company with Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida and Louisville. The defense gets stops and the offense holds the ball for a long time, plodding down the field. The Spartans just don't have many points to show for it.
“We move the ball just fine, but we can't convert that into points,” MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. “We're settling for field goals.”
Or no points at all.
In its last three games — a 19-16 loss to Iowa, a 12-10 loss to Michigan and a 16-13 win over Wisconsin — Michigan State's offense has had nine drives of 40 yards. Out of a potential 63 points the Spartans could have scored, they cashed in just 26. More drives came up empty (three) than ended in touchdowns (two).
This fuzzy math leaves MSU at 5-4, needing every break to capture a Legends Division crown that it fully expected to win before the season. The Spartans are aiming for a “perfect November,” Maxwell said, and even that might not be enough.
But Maxwell couches his hope in a 12-play, 75-yard, five-minute touchdown drive at the end of regulation in the Wisconsin game, when the Spartans sprung to life. Maxwell completed 8 of 9 passes on the drive. He cannily scrambled for a first down.
“We put the first 54 minutes behind us,” Maxwell said. In overtime, Maxwell hit wide receiver Bennie Fowler on third down for the game-winning touchdown.
Said MSU coach Mark Dantonio in his press conference: “To do it on his arm all the way down the field, that's what was impressive to me, how he handled it, managed the game, how he handled himself.”
Dantonio said he saw Maxwell's predecessor, Kirk Cousins, go through a similar coming-of-age process in 2009. Cousins bloomed into MSU's record holder in career yards, touchdowns and completions.
A junior, Maxwell doesn't have enough time to duplicate Cousins' numbers. And because Maxwell has a bigger build and stronger arm than Cousins did, he's been criticized for not taking better advantage of the opportunities Michigan State's defense gives him. A 56-percent completion rate ranks Maxwell 10th in the Big Ten. So does his 113.37 quarterback rating.
But Dantonio hasn't wavered in his support of the 6-foot-3 215-pounder. After he completed just 16 of 29 passes for 159 yards in a lackluster win over Eastern Michigan, Maxwell got a pep talk from Dantonio.
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“It meant a lot, coming from a head coach who's a defensive-side-of-the-ball guy,” Maxwell said. “He didn't lose confidence in this offense or a first-year quarterback.”
Now Maxwell turns to a Nebraska defense that in 2011 worked over Cousins like few units did. Michigan State lost 24-3. Cousins hit 11 of 27 passes that day and threw for fewer yards (86) than he did in any other game he started.
Maxwell traced some of the Spartans' struggles back to a bad running game.
“But we weren't very efficient in the passing game,” Maxwell said.
NU's matchup zone pass defense is a challenge for any quarterback, Maxwell said, because it forces offenses to change route concepts and find different plays that work against a modified man coverage.
Although Maxwell isn't much of a runner — he's lost 57 yards for the season — he said Nebraska's defense affords an opposing quarterback time to scramble.
“They play a fair amount of man coverage,” Maxwell said. “Anytime you do that, you'll have guys on the second level running with receivers or tight ends. That opens up some doors, eyeballs that aren't on you.
“This could be a week where this week in practice I can continue to put an emphasis on that. If the situation presents itself, maybe I can capitalize on it in the game.”
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