September 11, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

MSU's Dantonio must choose a quarterback, and it should be Maxwell

Mark Dantonio on generating more offense
Mark Dantonio on generating more offense: Dantonio says team needs to create more explosive plays.

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio isn’t ruling anything out, or ruling anything in. He might use one quarterback, or two or three. He might use a freshman, a sophomore, or a senior. He might punt on second down and hope defensive end Shilique Calhoun keeps scoring.

This is confusing and increasingly ridiculous. It’s good to have an open mind and embrace change, but not three weeks into a season. Michigan State is the most discombobulated 2-0 team in the country, and if you thought the quarterback crisis was about to clear up — haha, good one.

Connor Cook apparently, and surprisingly, will start Saturday against Youngstown State, at least as of Tuesday afternoon. Dantonio also could turn to freshman Damion Terry, now No. 2 on the depth chart, the last shiny package yet to be opened.

I still think senior Andrew Maxwell should be the guy because of his experience. Michigan State’s defense is too good to waste preparing for the future. Sometimes you go hunting for more and don’t find it, and when you circle back, the incumbent doesn’t look so bad.

In an attempt to save a mediocre offense, Dantonio is threatening to ruin a promising season, and he needs to stop. This has to be the last week of open tryouts, with Notre Dame next on the schedule. Two quarterbacks played in the opener. Three played last week. And today, Michigan State ranks 123rd out of 123 teams with 3.4 passing yards per attempt.

The Spartans can’t forget who they are — a grind-it-out team with a sensational defense. Give the ball to Maxwell, boost his confidence and tell him it’s his job as long as he minimizes mistakes.

“Sometimes it’s just a gut decision, but above all else, we want to find the one guy,” Dantonio said. “We want the one guy to emerge, and I don’t care who it is.”

Experience counts

Fans are chanting for Terry and his playmaking ability, and he might get a shot. But he was sick last week and his youth presents a huge gamble. Cook hasn’t shown passing touch to go with his strong legs. Tyler O’ Connor mixes nice plays and gaffes.

This is not the time for experimentation. Dantonio must pick and stick, and when the Spartans walk into Notre Dame Stadium in 10 days, I’d have Maxwell as the starter and one of the others as a change-of-pace guy. Maxwell’s biggest crime, besides his own indecisiveness, is that he hasn’t developed into Kirk Cousins. He has completed 50 percent of his passes without a touchdown or an interception. During last season’s 7-6 crumbling, he had 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and had to be shaken by the drop-happy receivers.

Dantonio swore such offensive inconsistency wouldn’t happen again. It’s fine to swear it, harder to do it. Those who thought the Spartans wouldn’t miss tough runner Le’Veon Bell were fooling themselves. Same thing for anyone who assumed the receiving corps suddenly would stop dribbling the ball all over the field.

Dantonio even showed his indecisiveness picking an offensive coordinator, appointing two — Dave Warner and Jim Bollman. So far, they look overmatched. The Spartans usually are very good at playing to their strengths, not pretending to be something they aren’t. With Cousins, passing was a strength. Now they have a defense stellar enough to win games by itself, which is exactly what it’s done with four touchdowns in two games (compared to the offense’s two).

Dantonio often references his stint as defensive coordinator on the 2002 Ohio State national championship team that won all sorts of ugly ways. No one is comparing this team to Ohio State, at least not sober. But with a dominant defense, the Spartans just need a quarterback who can complete a third-and-4 pass. They may look like a 7-5 team right now, but if they keep knocking the ball loose, and the receivers finally hang onto it, nothing is lost yet.

Of course, you couldn’t tell Tuesday, when Dantonio spent considerable time answering questions such as: Why didn’t you fix this stinky offense before now?!

“You think you’d find out in the spring,” Dantonio said. “You think you’d find out in the summer. But obviously we did not. … Most of the day, this is preoccupying our thoughts. You can’t let it overwhelm you because it’s not going to get fixed if you let it overwhelm you.”

It's on Dantonio

This falls directly on the coaches, ultimately on Dantonio. He built a lot of trust equity in East Lansing with back-to-back 11-victory seasons, and there’s no sense squandering it. Michigan State has heard boos in each game, which happens when you punt 18 times — 18! — against Western Michigan and South Florida.

Mike Sadler is a great punter and a good guy, but sorry, no one wants to see his artistry.

“Do I have the confidence we can get things structurally fixed? Yes I do,” Dantonio said. “I ask the tough questions — what are we doing that we weren’t doing when Kirk Cousins led the conference in passing? It’s not like we’re conjuring up something brand new.”

There’s a chance the Spartans simply aren’t skilled enough or experienced enough. The offensive line has to be better. Touted receiver Aaron Burbridge is still finding his way. Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough might run hard, but they’re not Bell.

This is a major test for Dantonio, who’s willing to be the target to protect the psyche of his players. But he damages those psyches every time he hits the music and does the quarterback shuffle.

One more free look Saturday, and then it’s time to pick and stick. If no one else grabs the job, he has to give it back to the safe senior, Maxwell, and let the defense do the rest.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Senior Andrew Maxwell owns the most experience among Michigan State's candidates for starting quarterback. / Dale G. Young / Detriot News
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