Michigan State's 6-6 season was a big disappointment for a team that many, including the Spartans themselves, thought was ready to win a Big Ten title.
Painfully close losses and poor offensive execution were a constant theme in 2012. Next season could bring better things, as the majority of the offense returns and the schedule is manageable. But quarterback Andrew Maxwell isn't ready to look that far forward.
"I told the team the other day, 'We don't have to wait 'til next year to try and turn it around,'" Maxwell told ESPN.com. "'We can come out fast and play mistake-free football and be the team we always thought we could be on the 29th.'"
That's Dec. 29th, when Michigan State will face TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. While a win there won't erase all the bad memories from this season, it would allow the Spartans to take a more positive note into 2013.
"We've only got nine seniors ... so we're a young football team, and it gives us an opportunity to sort of move forward in 2013," head coach Mark Dantonio said Thursday. "We're going to live on this game for the next eight months, there's no question about that."
And there's little question that the best way for Michigan State to improve its narrative from this season is to improve a very shaky passing game. That as much as any other factor is why the Spartans fielded a top-five defense yet finished .500.
The extra 15 bowl practices could help, especially for the team's still young receivers.
“[This year] was a learning experience,” receiver Keith Mumphery told ESPN.com. “We had to learn to stay positive, no matter the situation. We can prove that we’re playmakers and we can make the tough catches and we can all come through when we need it.”
Extra work can only help Maxwell, too, after a rocky first year as the team's starting quarterback. The redshirt junior didn't get to ease into his bowl preparation this month. The Spartans have spent a lot of time practicing starters vs. starters, meaning Maxwell has to face his own team's ferocious defense. If that weren't enough, Dantonio made the quarterbacks live in practice, allowing them to get hit for the first time since the preseason.
"When you do that against a defense like ours, that's game speed," Maxwell said.
Dantonio hinted at offensive changes near the end of the regular season, and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar told reporters Thursday that he has experimented some with more quarterback runs. He wouldn't commit to using them in the game against TCU, however.
"Whether we're good enough right now to go execute on a high level in a game‑like situation, I think that will be determined by how we continue to practice down in Arizona," he said. "But ... you're looking at a couple of our young quarterbacks and feeling like all of a sudden there's another dimension with us being able to spread the field, make them play coverage, and then add the element of being able to run the quarterback."
Asking Maxwell to run a lot against the Horned Frogs' fast defense might not be the answer to Michigan State's offensive problems. A better solution might be just building better chemistry between him and the receivers so they can connect on the plays that eluded them throughout the season. It's questionable whether that can happen in a month, but at least Maxwell now has 12 games under his belt as the starter.
"I think I'm a different player than I was in Week 1," he said. "The biggest thing I learned this year was just being in those situations that you really can't duplicate in practice. Like when we're at Wisconsin, and we haven't scored all day and we have to drive for a touchdown at the end of the game to tie it.
"You can't simulate that in practice or in camp. So it was important for me to get in those situations, and there some times where we weren't successful, like against Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa. Those are things that for me personally I can learn from, and the next time they arise, I'll be better suited and more equipped for."
The Spartans hope they aren't simply waiting 'til next year to see that improvement on the field.