Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Michigan State Spartans, Part 2, Offense

David Fidler Correspondent IAugust 14, 2012

TAMPA FL - JANUARY 02: Running back Le'Veon Bell #24 of the Michigan State Spartans rushes upfield against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl January 2, 2012 at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida. The Spartans won 33 - 30. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Last week I got my feet wet with Michigan State, looking at the program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Spartans will do this season.

This week I'll look at the 2012 Michigan State offense.

Offensive Overview

2011 scoring offense: 31.0 PPG (third in the conference), total offense: 390.4 YPG (fourth), rushing YPC: 3.95 (t-ninth), passing efficiency: 144.29 (third)

Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 3.6

Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: second (2007 and 2009)

Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: sixth (2008)

Returning starters: TB Le'Veon Bell, OT Dan France, OL Fou Fonoti, OG Chris McDonald, C Travis Jackson

Open Positions: QB, FB, WR, TE, OL

Offensive Formation: Multiple

Offensive Philosophy: Power/wear down the defense

Passing Scheme: Big Play

Rushing scheme: Power

Offensive Breakdown

Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has been known for its power-rushing game, but surprisingly, it has attacked almost as much through the air as on the ground.

In Dantonio's five years in East Lansing his Spartan offense has rushed on 54.5 percent of its plays from scrimmage.

That is still the majority of the plays, but in that five-year span, the only Big Ten teams—including Nebraska—that passed more as the total percentage of their overall offense were Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana.

This will be a big issue going into 2012, as the Spartans return an experienced running back and offensive line but have a new quarterback and almost no experienced pass catchers.

As the Lansing State Journal pointed out, compared to the guys he's throwing to, new quarterback Andrew Maxwell "looks like a seasoned veteran."

That is the dynamic of this year's Michigan State offense, and it remains to be seen how much Dantonio and his offensive coordinator Dan Roushar will adjust.


Junior Andrew Maxwell goes into 2012 as the Spartans probable starter.

He spent three seasons being groomed to take over for departed three-year starter Kirk Cousins. He has been Cousins' backup for two seasons after redshirting his first year on campus.

His garbage time stats are include a 56.7 completion percentage, 294 yards, one touchdown and a 111.76 passer efficiency rating.

Even in limited appearances, his improvement from year one to year two was palpable. He completed 44 percent of 25 freshman-year passing attempts. As a sophomore, he completed 69.2 percent of 26 attempts, though all of his playing time was in garbage time against nobody that had a chance of stopping him.

Dantonio, via the Midland Daily News, is confident in Maxwell, though it is unlikely he would express anything to the contrary.

Redshirt-freshman Connor Cook will back Maxwell up, but according to, don't tell Cook that, as he is competing for the No. 1 position.

This year's offense would ideally take a 2008 approach, which featured more of a run-first mentality—56.2 percent of plays from scrimmage were on the ground compared to 52.0 percent in 2011. This would give Maxwell time to get his feet wet.

However, a more difficult August/September than anything MSU has seen during Dantonio's tenure—outside of, arguably, 2009—will mean Maxwell will have to learn and learn fast.

In short, MSU fans will know what they have in their quarterback by the time the Spartans open the Big Ten season on Sept. 29 against Ohio State.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 10

Running Backs

Le'Veon Bell is ready to be an every-down back after two seasons of sharing carries with the now-departed Edwin Baker.

At 6'2", 230 pounds, Bell is presumably up to the task.

In two seasons, Bell ran for 1,553 yards, which was good for 5.37 YPC and 21 touchdowns. He is also one of the better receiving backs in the country. Last year he had 35 receptions for 267 yards.

According to Big Ten Network senior writer Tom Dienhart, Bell is the third-best tailback in the conference, and arguably the best pro prospect.

As intimated previously, look for Bell to grab carries the way Javon Ringer—390 carries—did in 2008. Bell won't handle the ball quite that much, but he better be ready for a substantial workload.

If he needs a breather, veteran Larry Caper or up-and-coming speedster Nick Hill will be ready to take on carries.

Sophomore Niko Palazeti will likely take over for two-year starting fullback Todd Anderson.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Three

Pass Catchers

MSU's top returning wide receiver is sophomore Tony Lippett, who split last year between offense and defense and finished 2011 with four receptions. Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomore Keith Mumphrey are the only other Spartan wide receivers who have registered a catch—two each.

Also, sophomore Tennessee-transfer DeAnthony Arnett (per was recently granted permission to play without waiting one year. He will likely get some, if not a considerable amount of playing time. He caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in Knoxville.

After Arnett, MSU has a slew of freshmen—both true and redshirt—that will compete for playing time.

The most intriguing candidates are redshirt-freshman Andre Sims and true freshman Aaron Burbridge. The former was the No. 5 receiver—behind Lippet, Fowler, Mumphrey and Arnett—on the pre-camp depth chart. The latter was Rivals' No. 16 receiver in the country, but Dantonio confirmed, via, that he is out with an injury.

Tight end has a little more to work with, as junior Dion Sims has 23 receptions in his career. He missed 2010 due to suspension (per ESPN), and lost the latter part of last year to injuries.

The Detroit Free Press accurately describes Sims as having a high ceiling, but until he brings on it for a full 12 games, it's hard to fully buy into the hype.

As with the receivers, Sims represents the beginning and end of experienced tight ends, though junior Denzel Drone does have plenty of playing experience, but he got it at defensive end. Given MSU's surplus of defensive ends, this spring (via ESPN),Drone switched to the offense. He has high school experience at tight end, so time will tell how well the move works out.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11

Offensive Line

As mentioned last year, Mark Dantonio does not have a strong history of producing quality offensive linemen. In seven years as a head coach—two at Cincinnati and five at Michigan State—he has never put an offensive lineman into the NFL draft. That is a substantial issue considering Dantonio runs a power-based, pro-friendly system.

MSU returns the most experienced line in the conference (per Phil Steele), which, along with experience at tailback, will hopefully offset the lack of experience at quarterback and pass catcher.

The starting line at the opening of fall camp was (from left-to-right): junior Dan France, senior Blake Treadwell, junior Travis Jackson, senior Chris McDonald and senior Fou Fonoti.

All but Treadwell are returning starters. Treadwell began last year as the starting center, but a knee injury cost him the season (per SBNation). He was granted a medical redshirt and was healthy during spring ball.

MSU also has a number of upperclassmen in backup roles, including senior Ethan Ruhland and Henry Conway and juniors Skyler Burkland and Connor Kruse.

As Dantonio told The Detroit News, "our offensive line will control our fortunes."

That is a dead-on statement this year.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Five

Offensive Outlook

MSU's offensive success under Dantonio is somewhat surprising. Not that one believes the Spartans to have had a flat offense under their head coach, but collectively, over Dantonio's five-year tenure, the only Big Ten program that has posted a better offense has been Wisconsin.

However, one issue to consider is the quarterback. Dantonio's weakest teams—in terms of overall records—were 2007 and 2009, the latter of which went 6-7 and the former of which went 7-6. It is also worth noting that in terms of PPG, those were not his weakest offenses, though they did throw the most interceptions

Those teams both broke in new quarterbacks—Brian Hoyer in 2007 (though Hoyer had previous, though limited, starting experience) and Kirk Cousins in 2009.

It remains to be seen if quarterback-replacement is Dantonio's Achilles heel, but the offense will rely more heavily on the run game this year than it has the past two seasons, probably reverting back to 2008 levels.

Maxwell and his receivers will not be depended upon to win many games. The running game and a strong defense will be the focal point of the Spartan's strategy. Nonetheless, he will be depended upon to take care of the football. If he can do that then the MSU offense will be successful.

The 2012 Spartan offense will take a few steps and points back statistically from the 2011 version, but the key will be turnovers. If MSU protects the ball and doesn't throw the defense into the fire that will be enough to ensure a successful season.

Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Michigan State's defense.


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