August 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State's biggest upgrade is well received

East Lansing — When you win the Big Ten and win the Rose Bowl and finish third in the country, there aren’t many steps left. Technically, only one.

To reach for that, the Spartans have to be even better, which won’t be easy. Pat Narduzzi will spin more wizardry, but can that defense really be any fiercer? The offensive line, minus three starters, can’t possibly be more punishing. The breakout back, Jeremy Langford, surely will have more eyes and defenders on him.

The Spartans grinded opponents into grass-stained pulp last season, and that’s what they’ll try to do again, with one potentially significant upgrade. They now have an experienced quarterback, Connor Cook, and well-seasoned, play-making receivers in an offense that actually — dare I say? — could be explosive.

It’s the scary part about these eighth-ranked Spartans, the element that could make them a legitimate contender for the new four-team national playoff.

“I feel like in all areas on offense, we’ll be better,” said Cook, a junior. “The array of weapons is awesome.”

Now, we won’t get nutty here. For Mark Dantonio, an explosive offense gains 8 yards on first down instead of 5. Michigan State’s principles haven’t changed, but the key is, its principals on offense haven’t changed either. Amazingly, of the 17 players who caught a pass last season, only one — Bennie Fowler — has departed.

Go back a year, just for fun. Remember the offense that dragged along, then lumbered to life when necessary? Remember when Cook was a long shot to start, and the receivers were long shots to hang on to passes? After tedious opening victories against Western Michigan and South Florida, it was obvious Shilique Calhoun and the defense would have to carry the offense like a duffel bag.

That can’t be the case this season, and it probably won’t. Tony Lippett is a 6-foot-3 senior who now uses his size aggressively, the leading returning receiver with 44 catches for 613 yards. Senior Keith Mumphery is the speed guy, and his 72-yard touchdown catch in the Big Ten championship win over Ohio State was a signature play.

Junior Macgarrett Kings Jr. shows flashes, and so do Aaron Burbridge, R.J. Shelton and tight end Josiah Price. By the end of last season, instead of everyone holding their breath on every throw, they were catching their breath.

Offense looks to join in

Dantonio doesn’t want to wallow in last year’s incredible turnaround, hence the slogan, “It starts here.” But once a major weakness, the receiving corps could be the big difference now.

“From what I’ve seen so far — and it’s early — we have a lot of receivers that can catch the ball,” Dantonio said. “We have six, maybe seven guys that are equally as functional, that are big-play guys. I’m excited about our wide-outs — very excited about our wide-outs.”

While the Spartans led the Big Ten in every key defensive category, from rushing defense to passing defense to knocking the mouthguard-out-of-opposing-quarterbacks defense, they weren’t overly dynamic on offense. They finished seventh in the conference in passing and eighth in total offense, which proves at least one thing — it’s wiser to be great on defense than offense.

But they don’t want tedious efforts such as the 14-0 victory over Purdue, or the 14-3 win over Minnesota. The defense was so dominant, Michigan State didn’t engage in many shootouts, but that could change. For instance, points will be a priority in that early showdown at Oregon.

Cook’s development is a huge part of it, and he admits he has to cut down on unnecessary risks and improve his 58 percent completion rate. But defense still wins for the Spartans — unless the offense needs to do it.

“Our receivers have developed from what they showed last year,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “They’re gonna make the tough catch. That’s a much better feeling than the other feeling, where every time the ball goes in the air, you’re crossing fingers. … I think we have the ability and confidence to do it, but we’re never gonna be a throw-it-all-over-the-field team. Coach D’s not gonna have that. The formula’s worked up to this point.”

Belief is a start

Michigan State has won with a nasty edge and a healthy chip, and the challenge is to keep both after a 13-1 season. The Spartans still hear whispers of disrespect, some real, some imagined. Yes, Ohio State is picked to win the Big Ten. No, Michigan State isn’t expected to take a sizable step back.

But if there’s a group that reasonably can still carry the chip, it’s the receivers, who went from downtrodden to uplifting in a short span.

“The first couple weeks of last season, you didn’t know which receivers were going to play, you didn’t know what quarterback was going to play,” Lippett said. “Now I feel like we’re a pivotal part of this offense. When we were dropping the ball, all eyes were on us and it slowed everything down. The wide receivers always had a lot of ability, but it’s all about believing in yourself.”

Dantonio eventually trusted Warner to trust Cook, who eventually trusted his receivers, who eventually made game-changing plays. There’s always another step, and the Spartans’ hopes of reaching the national playoff are realistic. The catch is, more big catches probably will be required.

Michigan State receiver Keith Mumphrey catches a ball at practice Wednesday morning in East Lansing. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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