East Lansing, Mich— It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Michigan State Spartans were able to avoid a major upset, as they defeated the Eastern Michigan Eagles 23-7 in Spartans Stadium.
The Spartans were led by none other than Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for a career-high 253-yards and a touchdown.
Spartans kicker Dan Conroy went 3-of-4 and was the only point scorer for Michigan State until Andrew Maxwell connected with Dion Sims on a 10-yard pass with a little over 7 minutes left in the game.
Eastern Michigan went into the second-half with a 7-3 lead over the Spartans, and held the Michigan State passing attack to only 31 yards.
Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell didn’t get any help from his struggling receiving corps, which dropped six balls in the first-half, one less drop than their loss last week to Notre Dame.
“We need to play more consistent,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Players make plays, plays don’t make players.”
Consistency is one thing that the Spartans can’t find from their passing attack. If it’s not a dropped ball, it’s an overthrow. If it’s not an interception, it’s a fumble.
“Whether it’s dropping balls or turnovers, we have to eliminate those,” Bell said. “We have talented guys on the outside, those guys just have to make those plays. I have to make plays.”
Clearly, Bell was being modest being that he is the Michigan State offense. Bell carried the ball 36 times, and after a few mishandles on punt return by Nick Hill, he took over those duties as well.
“A guy puts the ball on the ground; you have to put someone back there to field the punts,” MSU offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. “Le’Veon stepped up and did a good job.”
Dantonio wasn’t overly pleased with the rest of the Spartans performance, especially the passing game.
“You have to catch the ball,” Dantonio stated. ” Throwing and catching. If there’s nothing wrong with the route and the ball is there you have to catch it. I hate to lay it out there like that but that’s just the way it is.”
The concern for the Spartans has come from those guys on the outside, as they have struggled to make plays for the MSU offense all season.
The leading wide receiver for the Spartans today was sophomore Keith Mumphrey, and he only had three catches for 21 yards. Junior Bennie Fowler had four catches for 19 yards, and sophomore Tony Lippett had two catches for 15 yards.
“We’re going to keep getting better, we still have a lot of young guys and inexperienced guys, and they’re going to keep getting better,” Bell said about his receivers.
One guy that Maxwell can rely on is tight end Dion Sims. While the young receivers struggled for the Spartans, Sims finished the game strong after being non-existent in the first-half. He had six catches for 112 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly he has stepped up as the playmaker for the Spartans passing attack.
When Maxwell was asked how big of a lift did Sims give him today, he responded: “That’s something that he does. That’s one thing he did against Boise State, and that’s the kind of player he is.”
Fowler, who has had struggles of his own, praised the play of Sims.
“Great hands, great route running ability,” Fowler said. “He makes the big plays so he’s going to take a lot off the receivers and he opens up a lot of things.”
There aren’t many positive things to take out of the Spartans 16-point win against the Eagles, but Maxwell thinks that this game will help Michigan State going forward.
“We battled back, and we trusted each other,” Maxwell said. “We are going to grow closer as a team because of that.”
Michigan State is heading into Big Ten play next week, as they host the Ohio State Buckeyes. While Maxwell believes this team will grow, I just don’t see it happening any time soon.
While many might see Bell’s performance today as a positive, I think it’s evident that it’s a negative for the Spartans as a team.
Games like today are the ones where inexperienced players like Maxwell, Fowler, Mumphrey, and Lippett are supposed to get reps and build chemistry. When you struggle against teams of EMU’s caliber, ranked 116th in the country in total defense, you can’t improve on your weaknesses, you have to go to your “bread and butter” every play and that won’t get these inexperienced players any better.
It’s unfortunate at this point in the season that there has not been a standout receiver, and with games against Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Boise State, you would think that someone would become that guy on the outside.
Instead of improving chemistry and building as a unit going forward, the Michigan State offense is still having tryouts at the receiver position. Throughout Big Ten play you will continue to see numerous receiver combinations until someone separates themselves from the pack.
Bell and Sims can’t be the only playmakers on this offense. The Spartans need speed down the field speed to stretch defenses so that Bell can continue to breakdown defenses. If the Spartans can’t spread the field, then defenses will stack the box and contain Bell, which will leave kicker Dan Conroy and punter Mike Sadler very busy.