MSU’s healthy offensive line gets ready for push
East Lansing — Last season, Michigan State had one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the program, and it appeared a similar performance was coming in 2015.
The Spartans have been good this season, averaging 33.4 points to rank second in the Big Ten. And there’s a chance the 2014 numbers could be resurfacing at exactly the right time.
And it begins Saturday at Nebraska, where Michigan State takes on the 13th-rated pass defense in the conference — and does so with a healthy offensive line for the first time since Week 2.
“I think (offensive line) coach (Mark) Staten made the statement that it was play seven of the Oregon game that those five were in together,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “There’s a comfort level when guys play next to each other. And they are guys that have played a lot of football, so we’re excited to get those guys back.”
The return of center Jack Allen is the final piece to the puzzle. He missed the past two games with an ankle injury, one that came while left tackle Jack Conklin and right tackle Kodi Kieler were dealing with knee injuries. Conklin’s backup, Dennis Finley, broke his leg in his first start and was lost for the season.
It has created plenty of depth as Benny McGowan, David Beedle and Brandon Clemons have played. Salem admits he’ll breathe a little easier with the starters back, but he has plenty of confidence in the entire unit.
“I think you always think in that sense (with the starters), but I think we’ve gotten real valued reps from guys behind,” Salem said. “I think that hats off to the guys that have come in. Guys that have prepared themselves for those situations.”
It also helps to have fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook hitting his stride. Cook has thrown from more than 300 yards in each of the last three games, and came two yards short of setting a Michigan State game record with 398 yards against Indiana.
“It feels great (to have the line back),” said Cook, who was named a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (top quarterback) on Wednesday. “I’m ready to have them go out there and protect me. ... To see Jack Allen out there and Jack Conklin and the other guys out there having fun and running around, it feels like old times.”
The passing game has been clicking behind senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who leads the Big Ten with 830 yards receiving on 52 catches.
The biggest goal for the offense is to find the balance that made them effective a year ago. The running game has been inconsistent, but the Cornhuskers expect better from the Spartans this week.
“I think they’re a team built on balance with a real threat with a great quarterback — a very efficient quarterback — and a receiver that’s leading the league right now,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “So that’s an issue, but they’ve got big running backs, they’ve got good balance, and it’s a physical football team.”
Fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun was named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award on Thursday. He leads the Spartans with 101/2 tackles for loss (sixth Big Ten), including eight sacks (fourth Big Ten, seventh FBS).