It's next man up as Spartans go down with injuries
East Lansing — Shilique Calhoun joked on Tuesday that Michigan State's players are actually just machines, and if you pulled his skin back you'd see metal.
It would then be difficult to explain the recent rash of injuries the Spartans have suffered and are dealing with as they enter Big Ten play by hosting Purdue at noon on Saturday.
"We don't break down," the fifth-year senior defensive end said. "They just shut us down and repair us. We're just recharging, that's about it."
No. 2 Michigan State (4-0) would love that to be the case for a handful of players, none more important than junior left tackle Jack Conklin. He left last week's victory over Central Michigan in the first half with an injured left knee.
The good news on Tuesday was the apparent conclusion that Conklin's injury was not a season-ender. So perhaps he is just recharging, like Calhoun suggested. The same can be said for junior tight end Josiah Price, who injured his ankle late against the Chippewas, and fifth-year senior safety RJ Williamson, who was knocked out of the game twice.
"Amazing how young people, how fast they heal," coach Mark Dantonio said. "This is Tuesday. We'll see what happens by Friday or Saturday. Usually we'll make those announcements prior to the game, if they are not able to play in the game."
Dealing with injuries has been a bigger problem this season for the Spartans than it has been in recent years. They lost senior linebacker Ed Davis for the season to a knee injury one week into preseason camp and redshirt freshman cornerback Vayante Copeland suffered a neck injury in week two that knocked him out for the year.
But what Michigan State has done well is fill the gaps. They've uttered the mantra "next man up" since early August and that hasn't changed four weeks into the season. It even worked last week when middle linebacker Riley Bullough had to sit out the first half because of a targeting call. Sophomore Shane Jones stepped in without missing a beat.
"Coach always says we're not going to let an injury be the reason why we lose a game," fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook said. "We have plenty of depth here at all positions — tight end, the offensive line, the defensive line and linebacker as well as the secondary. When guys step out there and play it's only a matter of time. ... All it takes is one game for a guy to step in there and make a couple of plays and all of a sudden he's the guy."
That mentality began early and it was evident that Michigan State was adapting just fine. Sophomores Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have been two of the most productive players at the "Money" linebacker spot that Davis vacated. And when junior right tackle Kodi Kieler was injured in week two against Oregon, fifth-year senior Donavon Clark bumped out to tackle from guard and junior Benny McGowan has taken over at guard.
The next offensive linemen to jump in is sophomore Dennis Finley. He entered last week for Conklin and had a rough start, picking up a holding call and then getting beat as Cook was dragged down and avoided a sack by getting back to the line of scrimmage.
But that is what Finley needed to get in the flow and start feeling comfortable.
"After the first two plays I lost all my nerves and was ready to go," said Finley, who appeared in six games last year as a redshirt freshman. "Of course I was nervous because everybody has pregame nerves but once you get in there it is just like a practice, or easier than practice because you're prepared and you've worked for it."
Cook has grown accustomed to Conklin being the one protecting his blind side. But he saw steady improvement on Saturday from Finley and feels comfortable heading into this week's game with the former Detroit Cass Tech star watching out for him.
"He had the one holding call and I got hit and worked back to the line of scrimmage, but I thought he did great," Cook said. "I think there were some butterflies he had to get rid of and as soon as they were gone I thought he did a great job of protecting me, doing a good job in the running game, and I have all the confidence in the world in Dennis. Jack is right there coaching him up and telling him what he needs to improve on and so is coach (Mark) Staten. He knows the offense, knows what to do and he's been here long enough that when he steps on the field he knows what to do."
The same could be said for junior Jamal Lyles or fifth-year senior Paul Lang, two tight ends who would see more time if Price's injury lingers. And the cornerback battle continues in the quest to replace Copeland.
Junior Darian Hicks played well last week and could see more snaps on Saturday.
"We have all the confidence in the world in anyone on this football team," Cook said. "They wouldn't be here if not for that, so we'll be just fine."
MSU injuries stack up
Michigan State has suffered two season-ending injuries while other ailments are lingering. Here are some the players stepping into key positions:
Injured player, replacement
*LB Ed Davis, Jon Reschke/Chris Frey
*CB Vayante Copeland, Arjen Colquhoun/Darian Hicks
RT Kodi Kieler, Donavon Clark, Miquel Machado
LT Jack Conklin, Dennis Finley
TE Josiah Price, Jamal Lyles/Paul Lang
* - out for the season
Purdue atMichigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Purdue 1-3, No. 2 Michigan State 4-0
Line: Michigan State by 22
Series: Michigan State leads 34-28-3