'I just think there's a lot of pride in that group and it's selfless,' offensive line coach Mark Staten says of his unit. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — For the entire week, Michigan State’s coaches and players have all said the right things about today’s matchup against Purdue.
At 1-5 overall and at or near the bottom in most statistical rankings in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers don’t appear in a position to offer much of a test. Odds are the Spartans will improve to 3-0 in the conference, remain atop the Legends Division and continue moving forward with big games on the horizon.
But talk is one thing, getting it done is another.
And it all starts with an improving offensive line that must keep gaining the confidence it has discovered once Big Ten play started.
“I just think there’s a lot of pride in that group and it’s selfless,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “They want others to succeed, and because of that, we’re able to roll out a whole different offensive line in the fourth series of last game.”
This season’s performance has been a significant change from the last two seasons, when injuries decimated the line. But the silver lining from those injuries is the experience that provided to players on this year’s line. Michigan State regularly plays at least eight linemen each game, and there has been little dropoff from combination to combination.
The Spartans have allowed four sacks and are leading a running game averaging 186.8 yards, bettering the 149.4 it produced last season despite the fact Le’Veon Bell ran for 1,793 yards, second best in Michigan State history.
It’s been a welcome change for Staten, but he insists the approach is similar.
“It’s always stressful,” he said. “As a coach, you’re always looking to be a little bit better. So, I sometimes tell the guys I’m sorry for being a little bit negative because sometimes I’m more focused on that than what they’re doing great. I push myself to try to push them in a positive fashion because you only know about them when they mess up. It’s the only time you hear about a linemen unless they make a block out in the open.”
The starting lineup has sorted itself out for the most part and this week includes redshirt freshman Jack Conklin at left tackle, senior Blake Treadwell at left guard, sophomore Jack Allen at center, senior Dan France at right guard and senior Fou Fonoti at right tackle.
While Treadwell has been the only constant, sophomore Donavon Clark (left tackle) and junior Travis Jackson (center) also have plenty of experience — Jackson has 17 career starts — and junior Connor Kruse has played at center, guard and tackle. All eight have played better than 100 snaps.
“I’m out there mixing it up, working different combinations,” Staten said. “And that’s what it comes down to, guys being familiar with each other. They’ve worked the combinations together; they know each other and know where each other is going to be.”
It has resulted in plenty of room to run for the backs, including junior Jeremy Langford, who had his first career 100-yard game last week, and freshman Delton Williams, who gained 92 yards.
Throw in junior Nick Hill and the three are combining to produce more than Bell did a season ago.
Purdue likely won’t provide the biggest test for the Michigan State running game, allowing an average of 319.5 yards in two Big Ten games despite a recent change to a 3-4 alignment.
Regardless, the Spartans say they have a long way to go.
“We’re nowhere near as good as we can be,” Fonoti said. “We have so many guys who know what to do and we’ve got guys who continue to learn more. That’s definitely putting us in the right positions and allowing us to keep that fast tempo we’re trying to do by keeping fresh bodies in there. The rotation we have is a good thing.
“One of our huge things the coaches are harping on is getting back to what we know and love Spartan football to be. Running the ball is something we’re emphasizing.”