MSU's offense clicking heading into Nebraska game
East Lansing — Through four games, there has been plenty of fretting over the way Michigan State's defense has played.
It's been a bit over the top if you ask coach Mark Dantonio, who jokingly conceded his team gave up "14 whopping points" last week in a victory over Wyoming.
But after being so dominant last season, the number of big plays allowed has been surprising.
While the 10th-ranked Spartans admittedly have had some missed assignments and coverage busts the past few weeks, there have been almost no concerns on offense.
While the defense continues to find its footing behind six new starters, the offense is hitting on all cylinders heading into tonight's matchup against No. 19 Nebraska. And much of that is thanks to quarterback Connor Cook.
"He's a really good player," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's very decisive and gets the ball out in a hurry. Strong arm. Pretty accurate thrower. I think they do a good job. I think he really understands what they're trying to do offensively. He makes good decisions. He has a quick release. I think he's a tremendous player."
It was slow to come for Cook last season as the Spartans opened the season unsure who their quarterback would be. But once Big Ten play started, Cook found some rhythm.
And when Michigan State played at Nebraska in the middle of November, Cook and the Spartans took advantage of five Cornhuskers turnovers to earn a victory. Jeremy Langford ran for three touchdowns in that game, but it was Cook's 27-yard scoring pass to Keith Mumphery in the fourth quarter that put the Spartans in control.
Since then, Cook believes he has become a more accomplished quarterback.
"I'm a smarter quarterback this year," Cook said. "I feel like I know when to get rid of the ball and I know where to go with the ball. … I think I'm more comfortable than I have ever been in knowing the offense and the chemistry I have with the wideouts. It's not just me, it's other guys making plays. Tony (Lippett) is making great catches, (Jeremy) Langford is breaking tackles on third-and-short and getting first downs to extend drives, the offensive line is protecting me long enough to go through my reads.
"It's a whole team thing and the reason I have been so good is because of the receivers, because of the running backs, because of the offensive line. It's not just one player."
The rest of the offense certainly has been doing its part, receivers in particular. Lippett leads the Big Ten in receiving (105.2 yards) and R.J. Shelton, AJ Troup and Mumphery have been solid.
"They have good size and they're physical," Pelini said of the Spartans receivers. "Sometimes they have those big guys who are kind of lumbering, but these guys are quick. They do a nice job, they're well-coached and get in and out of breaks."
The running game also has been outstanding the past two weeks, accounting for more than 300 yards each week in victories over Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. Last week against the Cowboys, Langford went over the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. Langford and the running game has helped the Spartans lead the Big Ten in time of possession.
It's a part of the Michigan State attack that figures to keep getting better as the offensive line is as healthy as it's been with center Jack Allen likely to return this week.
"I think our offensive line is gelling," Dantonio said. "We have got Connor Kruse back, so that was a positive. That gives us more depth, experience. But things are so wrapped up in how the wide receivers block, how the tight ends block, if we have a fullback in the game, how he blocks. … So, there's a lot of things to running the football."
Nebraska at Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: No. 19 Nebraska 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten), No. 10 Michigan State 3-1 (0-0)
Line: Michigan State by 7
Series: Nebraska leads 7-1 (Michigan State 41-28, Nov. 16, 2013)