Big Ten: Michigan State practice 090824

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- If you blacked-out Michigan State's win-loss record from 2008 and just examined where the team ranked statistically in the Big Ten, you'd probably peg the Spartans for no more than six or seven wins.

Michigan State finished no higher than fifth in any of the major statistical categories. In most cases, the team finished right in the middle of the pack.

Sixth in scoring (25.1 ppg)
Fifth in points allowed (22.1 ppg)
Fifth in turnover margin (plus-.15)
Ninth in rushing offense (130.2 ypg)
Seventh in rushing defense (142.5 ypg)
Sixth in pass offense (213.3 ypg)
Seventh in pass defense (213.4 ypg)
Eighth in total offense (343.5 ypg)
Seventh in total defense (355.8 ypg)

So how did the Spartans go 9-4, finish third in the league and reach the Capital One Bowl? They won close games and buckled down in the red zone, leading the league in red zone defense (75.6 percent).

"We've got goals where we'd like to do this in the run game and this in the pass game, but ultimately, in the end, it's all about wins," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "When you look at those stats, they're deceiving, but they're important because it does let you know where we are."

Narduzzi recalled several big plays that skewed Michigan State's defensive statistics, including a 78-yard touchdown run by Indiana's Marcus Thigpen at the end of the first half in Bloomington. Thigpen's run serves as a reminder that while the defense made strides from the year before, better consistency remains a goal.

For the players, the numbers hold some value.

"We know that high statistics mean we're going to win games," cornerback Ross Weaver said. "We don't want a whole bunch of picks just so we can say we got 'em. We know that if we do get picks, it means our secondary will do better and help win games. We do like to be the best in what we do."

Added defensive end Trevor Anderson: "Being in the middle of the pack is OK, but it's time we take the next step and try to be [No.] 1 or 2, preferably 1."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING -- Trevor Anderson was nearly out the door this summer.

In an effort to elevate his game before his senior season at Michigan State, Anderson logged onto YouTube and researched available instruction for defensive linemen. He soon came upon Defensive Line Inc., a training center for defensive linemen and outside linebackers run by former Atlanta Falcons standout Chuck Smith in Suwanee, Ga.

    Cliff Welch/Icon SMI   Michigan State defensive lineman Trevor Anderson honed his craft, with his teammates, in the offseason.

Anderson got in touch with one of the directors of the center through Facebook and received information about the program. He'd be able to rub elbows with NFL pass rushers and other college standouts, and get the instruction to elevate his game before a season that largely will determine his draft status.

The prospect of spending the summer in Georgia intrigued Anderson, who led Michigan State with eight sacks last fall.

"I thought about doing it," Anderson said. "But it would be kind of selfish for me to leave and not be with the team, not be sweating with them. Here, it was a little bit more structured. I went through the summer grind, as we call it, not being able to pay for food all the time, being able to bond with the players. It's a part of college, man, a college experience, and I really enjoyed it."

Anderson discussed the possibility of going through the program with his coaches, who were pleased to see him ultimately stick around.

"We had one guy a year ago go do [a program] at a different position," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "and I'm not sure his teammates looked at it as real fair, as far as, 'Hey, where's he at? Why isn't he with us? Is he something special?' It's important that those guys be together because they grow together during the summer.

"Everybody says, 'You don't have experience coming back [on the defensive line].' It doesn't matter how good you are. It matters how well you jell together."

Anderson is determined to unite the defensive line, which returns only two starters but has stood out so far in camp.

"One of the things I share with the younger players is, 'You need to decide what type of player you are,'" he said. "'Are you a run stopper? Are you a pass rusher? Are you a power rusher? Are you a finesse rusher?' You need to decide and work on getting yourself better at that and work on your weaknesses.

"I'm pretty much trying to be a player first, and then a coach, for our team."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Kirk Cousins first started competing for Michigan State's starting quarterback spot as a senior in high school.

Less than a month after Cousins verbally committed to the Spartans, the team added another quarterback, Nick Foles, to the 2007 class. Foles eventually transferred to Arizona, but Michigan State added a quarterback transfer in Keith Nichol, who originally committed to the Spartans before switching to Oklahoma after a coaching change. Nichol quickly became Cousin's top competition when Brian Hoyer graduated.

Needless to say, Cousins is used to this. But he also knows the moment of truth is getting closer.

"I've been dealing with this now for two years, so I've been anxious for two years," Cousins said. "Another week's not going to change anything. But definitely, I understand that this is crunch time, and a lot is going to be determined September 5th and September 12th, in those first two games, as far as the direction they're going to go."

Head coach Mark Dantonio's plan all along called for both Cousins and Nichol to see the field early in the season. The quarterbacks were dead even coming out of spring ball, putting up the exact same numbers in the Green and White Game (357 pass yards, 4 TDs each).

Things have more or less remained the same in camp, with Nichol putting up better numbers in the first scrimmage and Cousins tossing the only touchdown in Friday's scrimmage at Spartan Stadium.

"What they've told us is that we will both play," Cousins said. "They believe that game experience is extremely important, and that's where a quarterback has to ultimately be evaluated. It wouldn't be fair to make an evaluation strictly off of practice and then go with a guy. [Dantonio] thinks you have to play both of the guys in a game to see what they can do in a game situation, and I would agree with that."

Nichol agrees that both he and Cousins deserve field time outside of mop-up duty, but he doesn't foresee Michigan State sticking with a two-quarterback system very long.

"They really want to pick a starter," Nichol said, "a guy who's going to lead them to a Big Ten title from now until then. ... Nobody wants to do the two-QB system. Nobody really knows who to follow, exactly. Both of us can lead, but the quarterback's a special position where only one of them gets to play. You have to be able to follow one guy specifically.

"There's no such thing as too much leadership, but at the same time, you need a guy that everybody on the offense can look to."

Dantonio is also looking beyond the decision on a starter.

He wants to make sure factions don't develop in the locker room. He also notes that both Cousins and Nichol are sophomores, so "whoever takes control of that football team needs to move that football team, because there is competition."

"The person who is going to have to really put the team first is the guy who ends up not being the starter long term," Cousins said. "They're going to have the most difficult situation. I don't think other people on the team will really take sides. But that person is obviously in a very difficult situation and has to face some adversity. The natural human emotion is it would be difficult to respond positively, but that's what one of us has to do."

Cousins and the coaches have gone through hypothetical situations of how he would react to being the backup. Nichol, meanwhile, isn't focused on the possibility of being No. 2.

"I don't think as a quarterback, you should be putting yourself in that kind of position," he said. "You always have to think you're the guy, you're the man. ... People outside ask you hypothetically, 'How will you react?' And I just say, 'I don't think like that.'"

Both quarterbacks have been pleased with their progress so far in camp, and despite their differences in style, Cousins said both are running the same offensive system.

Cousins notes that his ability to read defenses has improved, while Nichol, who often gets stereotyped as a run-first quarterback, has grown more comfortable sitting in the pocket and going through his progressions as long as possible.

"It's been a long road," Nichol said. "I'm really anxious to have it figured out. Anxious is the best word. Anxious for the season, anxious for the season, anxious for the future. I'm excited about everything that's going on."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's quarterback competition remains virtually deadlocked, but the Spartans are seeing some separation in the race to replace All-American running back Javon Ringer.

The team has several veteran options at running back -- senior A.J. Jimmerson and sophomores Ashton Leggett and Andre Anderson all have played -- but the coaching staff expects youth to be served this fall. Heralded true freshmen Larry Caper and Edwin Baker have been as advertised so far in camp, and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray is continuing his progression after a strong finish to spring ball.

Last year, Ringer was the Spartans offense, accounting for nearly 41 percent of the team's production. A committee system is likely this fall, but the top group seems to be taking shape.

"There's some players that have stepped out a little bit," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "The freshmen running backs have done a nice job. Caulton Ray has done a nice job. Those three guys right now have separated themselves a little bit, but things can change pretty quickly."

Both true freshmen feel ready to contribute immediately, and running backs coach Dan Enos calls Ray arguably the team's most improved player. After being slotted behind Ringer and several others last fall, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Ray came on strong during winter conditioning and impressed the coaches with his knowledge of the offense in spring ball.

Though the 220-pound Caper has a size edge over Ray and Baker, both of whom are closer to Ringer's frame, all three backs demonstrate their toughness in camp.

"We practice very hard and very physical," Enos said. "All of our backs have been given the ball a bunch in camp because it's been a priority for us to find out who the guys are going to be. Those three guys, in particular, they've hung onto the ball, they've ran hard and they've been put in some tough situations, where they needed to get a tough yard or two tough yards, and they've shown the ability to do that."

The three young backs all finished among the stat leaders from Friday's controlled scrimmage at Spartan Stadium. Caper led the way with 68 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Ray (37 yards) and Baker (32 yards) also contributed.

Readiness is the big question surrounding all three players, but Enos likes what he sees.

"One of the reasons we [scrimmaged] in the stadium against our [first-team] defense, we wanted to see how they would respond," Enos said. "And they loved every minute of it. They were all itching to get back in the game when we took them out. They all ran really hard. We think they're going to be ready."

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