Quick 2014 review: Michigan State not only defeated but dominated almost everyone on its schedule last season. The exceptions were a five-point win at home against Nebraska (which had to stage a furious comeback after getting whipped for much of the game) and decisive losses to Oregon and Ohio State. Then there was the stunning comeback victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, a 42-41 triumph that put a happy face on the campaign when all was said and done.
The Spartans took a big step forward on offense but also suffered a decline defensively in 2014. With junior quarterback Connor Cook at the controls, the MSU offense set single-season school records for points (559), points per game (43.0), touchdowns, total offense, rushing yards and first downs. The defense was still in the nation’s top 10 statistically — No. 1 against the run — but dropped form third to 60th in passing yards allowed and third to 22nd in points allowed.
The Football Outsiders advanced stats only validate the results of the offense while putting into perspective where the defense struggled. The Green and White defense was one of the best in the nation in success rate (fourth) but one of the worst in preventing big plays as the Spartans ranked 123rd in “isoPPP”. While leading the country in preventing methodical drives, MSU was just 87th in terms of allowing explosive ones. Advanced numbers also showed the Spartans to be very good overall on the defensive line (third in adjusted line yards) but weak up front in short-yardage (115th).
Spring game recap: All-American offensive lineman Jack Allen scored the only touchdown of the afternoon as the White beat the Green 9-3 in front of an MSU-record crowd of about 48,000 on April 25. Allen’s score came on a 3-yard run in the first quarter. Playing for the Green, Madre London led all rushers with 50 yards while DeAnthony Arnett of the White team led all receivers with 51 yards. Cook was 11 for 22 for 105 yards for the White team while Tyler O’Connor was 6 for 16 for 51 yards with an interception for the White. Green linebacker Riley Bullough led all tacklers with seven while All-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun had 21/2 sacks for the Green and defensive lineman Evan Jones had an interception for the White.
Issues addressed: Michigan State went into the spring with an established quarterback in Cook and a mostly intact offensive line, but nearly all of the skill position players will be new in 2015. On the flip side, there was a lot of uncertainty in the secondary after Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond graduated and All-Big Ten cornerback Trae Waynes opted to go pro early. The other CB position was also uncertain after Darian Hicks lost playing time to Tony Lippett — the team’s top receiver — toward the end of the season.
Arnett is among the candidates to replace Lippett as the team’s go-to receiver, and Dantonio liked what he saw in the spring game.
“I've said all spring that he's had a good spring and been more effective,” Dantonio said. “He has got to catch the ball, but he's caught the ball much better. He has great ability and we've sort of been waiting for him to take off, so 2015 might be that time. He's got to come to camp ready to go. He stayed healthy all spring, which is a plus and gotten a lot of reps. He's repped with the one's and the two's so he's in that top six. If you're in that top six at wide receiver, you are going to get some opportunities.”
On the flip side, Dantonio sounded happy with his cornerbacks all spring. Getting particularly high marks was Demetrius Cox, a converted safety Dantonio described as “a guy who has to be on the field for us.” On the Big Ten spring football teleconference the week before the spring game, he also named Arjen Colquhoun, Jermaine Edmundson and Vayante Copeland as April standouts.
Also a position of interest all spring: Running back, where the top two players graduated, including two-time 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. London, a 6-1, 220-pound redshirt freshman and Gerald Holmes, a 6-0, 218-pound sophomore, both received high marks from Dantonio after the spring game.
“I was impressed with Gerald Holmes ability to tough it out,” Dantonio said. “He got some tough yards, very tough yards. I thought he ran pretty effectively. Madre London had the big run and showed some good speed. He played like a freshman a little bit in there at times, but he's going to be an exciting back to watch as we go forward.”