Big Ten Spring Review: Michigan State

Defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion Michigan State entered spring looking to continue a late-season improvement on the offensive side of the ball while rebuilding the middle of what was among the nation's best defenses last year.

Quick 2013 review:

The Spartans opened the season 3-0 before being tripped up at Notre Dame 17-13 on Sept. 21.That turned out to be their last loss of the season as they became the first team to go 8-0 in the Big Ten while winning every game by double digits. They followed that with an upset of No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game prior to a gritty 24-20 takedown of No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

There was no secret to what made Michigan State the Big Ten's best team in 2013 and a national top five finisher: defense. The Spartans led the nation in pass efficiency defense and were second in total yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and third down conversions. They were third in scoring and passing yards allowed and 10th in turnover margin. The offense was fairly pedestrian, finishing just 80th nationally in total yards but 37th in third down conversions and 64th in scoring. They also kept first-year starting quarterback Connor Cook fairly clean, finishing 15th in the nation in sacks allowed, and were 36th in red zone offense.

The Football Outsiders rankings reveal an offense that struggled on standard downs (102nd nationally) but was pretty good on passing downs (31st). The defense was the best in the country on standard downs, against the pass and in terms of play efficiency while ranking No. 2 in drive efficiency and against the run.

Spring game recap:

Cook threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price to break a tie with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter and win the game 20-13 for the White squad. That was the second touchdown pass of the day for Cook, who was also intercepted twice while completing 11 of 21 passes for 159 yards. For the Green team, Tyler O'Connor threw three interceptions and one touchdown pass while completing only 12 of 23 passes. Suiting up for both teams, Damion Terry completed 2 of 5 passes for 30 yards and displayed the running ability that has fans intrigued with his potential by taking a handoff and scampering 23 yards for the first touchdown of the day. Price, a returning starter at tight end, caught five passes for 81 yards while Tony Lippett led the Green with 96 yards receiving on seven catches. Nick Hill of the White team led all rushers with 69 yards. All-Big Ten end Shilique Calhoun was among defensive standouts with two sacks for the Green team while Darian Hicks, a sophomore from Solon, Ohio, led the White team with seven tackles.

Issues addressed:

Aside from the challenge of avoiding complacency after one of the best seasons in school history, head coach Mark Dantonio's squad was charged with continuing to upgrade the offense while replacing seven starters from the elite defense.

They showed off a wide open attack in the spring game with Terry sharing the field with the other quarterbacks and showing off his variety of abilities.

"He's a very good football player," Dantonio said after the spring game. "He's got to grow. He can throw it. He had a couple of good throws on the drops, I feel or great defensive plays maybe, if a hand gets in. Again, when guys play the game and play it for real, they'll get better."

Though there were five interceptions, Dantonio chose to credit the defense for making good plays rather than downgrade the performance of his quarterbacks overall. Replacing playmakers on that side of the ball was among the issues this spring, and Dantonio liked what he saw from the competitors start at safety alongside veteran Kurtis Drummond.

"R.J. Williamson is a very good player. Demetrius Cox is as well. Jalyn Powell has hitting ability and he's a young player," Dantonio said. "He needs to become more disciplined in what he's doing, but you're going to see him show up on the field, whether it's a lot on special teams or in and out on a lot of defenses."

Finding a new starting safety is just part of the task of rebuilding the Spartan defense up the middle, where both starting tackles and MLB Max Bullough are gone. Senior Taiwan Jones, the only returning starter among the linebackers, moved inside and impressed the coaching staff this spring while juniors Joel Heath, Damon Knox and Brandon Clemons all earned shout-outs from defensive line coach Ron Burton after the spring game.

"Joel Heath flashed today and did some good things; getting off the ball, moving them inside," Burton said. "We wanted to know if he could handle the double teams and stuff like that. He was very active. The defensive tackle on my side, Brandon Clemons, did some good things. I think he was very strong at the point of attack. On the other side, Knox got into the game and played a lot. He hadn't played as much as we wanted him to this spring.

"At the middle linebacker position I think we had some things we wanted to see out of (Jones) and (Jon) Reschke. Those guys have the ability to make some plays, but they're still a work in progress. Those two guys are battling for their job right now along with a third guy. I think overall it was good, but there's always room for improvement and I think that's where we are right now, we're just average. I think we can get a lot better experience-wise and that's the true teacher. We have to keep them on the field."

Follow on Twitter @marcushartman

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