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Barfknecht: Spartans look for answers on offense

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Barfknecht: Spartans look for answers on offense

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio talks to new players at the start of the Spartan's first preseason NCAA college football practice, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, in East Lansing, Mich.

Michigan State really, really, really wants you to believe its football offense will be better this season.

It can't struggle much more than last year. The Spartans, picked by many in 2012 to win the Big Ten Legends Division, went 7-6 and 3-5 while finishing 75th nationally in rushing, 85th in passing, 95th in total offense and 108th in scoring.

All-Big Ten cornerback Darqueze Dennard, when asked semi-seriously if he has been asked to help on offense, stuck up for his brethren on the other side of the ball.

“We've got a lot of talent on offense. They don't need me,” he said. “I don't think they deserve the criticism.

“They were young last year. It was their first time on the field. Now, they all have more confidence. That means they'll be dangerous. People better watch out for them.”

Oh, people will watch, all right. That includes MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who called last season “a letdown.”

“Were you happy with the record? Absolutely not,” Hollis said. “Did you see games you could have and should have won? Yeah.

“The problem is you don't want to fall off the cliff. You don't want to hope to win a few games and not get blown out in others. We're not in that state anymore. We expect to win every game we're in.”

How Michigan State plans to do that with the talent on hand should be of great interest to Nebraska and others in the Legends Division. (MSU plays in Lincoln on Nov. 16.)

The Spartans return their starting quarterback in senior Andrew Maxwell. But after a lackluster 2012 and modest improvement in the spring, the job could go to sophomore Connor Cook, who has three games of experience as a backup.

What yards Michigan State did gain last season were mostly thanks to running back Le'Veon Bell.

He wasn't just the nation's No. 3 rusher at 137.9 yards per game. Michigan State ran 957 offensive plays last season. Bell ran or caught the ball on 414 of them (43.3 percent).

Bell, with a year of eligibility left, departed in April for the NFL. It was hardly a surprise, but MSU coach Mark Dantonio didn't seem to be ready for it.

The running back stable was so jumbled in the spring that two weeks into workouts, Dantonio moved a linebacker to running back.

That player remains No. 1 on the depth chart now, which hardly sounds like an ideal situation to jazz up an offense. But the bloodlines couldn't be any better.

The new No. 1 runner is redshirt freshman Riley Bullough.

His brother, Max, is an MSU senior and first-team All-Big Ten middle linebacker. His father, Shane, was an MSU linebacker in the mid-1980s. His grandfather, Hank, was an MSU guard in the early 1950s who this year is being inducted into the school's athletics Hall of Fame.

For good measure, Bullough has three uncles who also played college football — two at Michigan State and one at Notre Dame.

So how good a runner is Riley Bullough?

“He's pretty good,” Max said, smiling. “It's kind of funny, I tackled him the first two or three times he had the ball in spring practice.

“Coach D told him to go over there. It wasn't much a decision on Riley's part or my part. I knew he would do well. Riley has always been a gamer, whether it's offense or defense.”

Running back is an easier position to learn than linebacker, speeding the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder's transition.

“Young linebackers' heads are always spinning,” Max said. “After a few days at running back, Riley said, 'Wow, I think I can learn this.' He liked it.”

But Riley Bullough's biggest offensive production in a high school season in Traverse City, Mich., was 927 yards and 16 combined touchdowns as a quarterback. Those are a long way from Le'Veon Bell numbers.

Dantonio's defense last season was ranked in the Top 10 in all four major categories. But with an offense that again shows little big-play potential, Michigan State is starting to resemble — in one major respect — Nebraska's old Big 12 foe Missouri.

Tigers coach Gary Pinkel cooked up a highly successful offense, but his defensive system and staff usually weren't good enough to compete for a title. It looks the same with Dantonio and Michigan State, only with defense as the star and the offense a lap or two behind in results and staff savvy.

Dantonio, in his seventh season, switched offensive coordinators last winter when the heavily criticized Dan Roushar bolted for an assistant's job with the New Orleans Saints.

But the new hire — Jim Bollman, who had just left Boston College to join Purdue — doesn't inspire. It looks too much like Iowa's hire of Greg Davis a year ago.

Bollman is 58 and worked for 11 years at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, who made his mark with defense and special teams, not offense. Bollman will be co-coordinator with Dave Warner, who the past six seasons has been MSU's quarterbacks coach.

To Dantonio's credit, he admitted his team got a little ahead of itself last year after 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, though neither resulted in a Rose Bowl trip.

“The quotes I was reading coming into the season, there were things I had to question,” Dantonio said. “I guess I was involved in that, too.

“You want to project positively about your program. But now it's time for us to stick our foot in the ground and drive forward. Maybe we took a step back last year to take two steps forward.”

But who on offense can gain those two steps? It remains to be seen.

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