Aaron Burbridge

Connor Cook tosses 3 first-half TDs to give Spartans halftime edge on Air Force

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After a huge win against Oregon last week, No. 4 Michigan State is doing what it can to assure there is no hangover this week against Air Force. The Spartans have been efficient in the passing game but have struggled to get the running game going in the first half against the visiting Falcons. Michigan State owns a 28-7 halftime lead regardless.

Connor Cook (9-13-0, 158 yards, 3 TDs) opened the scoring midway through the first quarter with the first of his three touchdown passes. The first went to Josiah Price from 15 yards out. The second and third came later in the second quarter to Aaron Burbridge from 28 yards and 32 yards, respectively. That gave Michigan State a little more breathing room entering the halftime break. The other Spartans touchdown was scored on a fumble returned for a touchdown by safety RJ Williamson.

Michigan State has managed just 34 rushing yards at the half despite trying to run the ball 20 times. Credit the Air Force defense for not allowing that to take off. Of course, Air Force’s offense is too one dimensional to keep pace with Michigan State. Air Force has negative passing yards (-1 yard on one pass attempt by Karson Roberts), but the Falcons have rushed for 131 yards.

Connor Cook sings praises of new crop of Michigan State receivers

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Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook may be losing a few key targets from last season, but the veteran starting quarterback is getting a jump on speaking highly of his new go-to receivers in 2015.

Cook enters this spring looking to build chemistry with some new starting wide receivers. Michigan State loses its top two receivers from 2014, Tony Lippett (1,198 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) and Keith Mumphery (495 yards, 3 touchdowns). This is the nature of the college game, of course, with players only able to stick around for so long before moving on in one capacity or another. Cook, preparing for his third season as the starting quarterback for the Spartans, knows there will be others ready to compete for an opportunity to start and play a key role in the Michigan State offense in 2015.

“Obviously losing [Tony Lippett] and [Keith Mumphery] are big losses, but we have some other (rising) senior leaders who are stepping up in Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge and AJ Troup, and then younger guys like R.J. Shelton, Matt Macksood and Tres Barksdale,” Cook said, as transcribed by MLive.com.

Kings is Michigan State’s top returning receiver with 404 yards and a touchdown last season. Burbridge caught 29 passes for 358 yards and a touchdown. Troup added 113 yards and two touchdowns as a junior. Shelton had 173 yards and two touchdowns in his sophomore season.Barksdale appeared in seven games and contributed two catches for 16 yards. Macksood, awarded a scholarship last spring. He appeared in seven games for Michigan State last season but not record any stats.

Ohio State continues to be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but Michigan State is not likely to be out of the running even after losing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to a head coaching job at Pittsburgh. With Cook in command of the offense, he will have solid protection from the offensive line. If the Spartans are to thrive and challenge Ohio State, Cook will have to get on track with his receivers and avoid shaky play as he experienced at times last season.

Reigning Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee one of 75 on preseason watch list

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The next stop on our tour of preseason watch lists is the Biletnikoff Award.

The award is presented annually to the top receiver in college football. Last year’s winner was USC’s Marqise Lee.

Lee is featured as one of 75 players on this year’s Biletnikoff preseason watch list. Other notable preseason candidates include Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin), Amari Cooper (Alabama), Stefon Diggs (Maryland), Rashad Green (Florida State), and Sammy Watkins (Clemson). The SEC leads all major conferences with 14 candidates, followed by the ACC and Big 12 with 10. The list is not final, however, as players can be added to it later.

The winner of this year’s award will be announced at The Home Depot College Football Awards Show on Dec. 12, 2013.

As always, you can view the entire list of preseason candidates below. You can now also check out our preseason watch lists repository HERE.

Jared Abbrederis, Sr., Wisconsin
Davante Adams, So., Fresno State
Nelson Agholor, So., USC
Alex Amidon, Sr., Boston College
Odell Beckham, Jr., Jr., LSU
Kenny Bell, Jr., Nebraska
Michael Bennett, Jr., Georgia
Chris Boyd, Jr., Vanderbilt
Corey Brown, Sr., Ohio State
Aaron Burbridge, So., Michigan State
Damiere Byrd, Jr., South Carolina
Michael Campanaro, Sr., Wake Forest
Brandon Carter, Jr., TCU
Brandon Coleman, Jr., Rutgers
Brandin Cooks, Jr., Oregon State
Amari Cooper, So., Alabama
Jamison Crowder, Jr., Duke
DaVaris Daniels, Jr., Notre Dame
Mike Davis, Sr., Texas
Quinshad Davis, So., North Carolina
Titus Davis, Jr., Central Michigan
Stefon Diggs, So., Maryland
Phillip Dorsett, Jr., Miami
William Dukes, Jr., FAU
Quinton Dunbar, Jr., Florida
Bruce Ellington, Jr., South Carolina
Mike Evans, So., Texas A&M
Shaquelle Evans, Sr., UCLA
Austin Franklin, Jr., New Mexico State
Jeremy Gallon, Sr., Michigan
Keyarris Garrett, Jr., Tulsa
Ryan Grant, Sr., Tulane
Rashad Green, Jr., FSU
Dorial Green-Beckham, So., Missouri
Deontay Greenberry, So.,  Houston
Noel Grigsby, Sr., San Jose State
Je’Ron Hamm, Sr., Louisiana-Monroe
Justin Hardy, Jr., East Carolina
Chris Harper, So., California
Robert Herron, Sr., Wyoming
Cody Hoffman, Sr., BYU
Josh Huff, Sr., Oregon
T.J. Jones, Sr., Notre Dame
Cody Latimer, Jr., Indiana
Marqise Lee, Jr., USC
Jordan Leslie, Jr., UTEP
Jordan Matthews, Sr., Vanderbilt
J.D. McKissic, So., Arkansas State
Trey Metoyer, So., Oklahoma
Matt Miller, Jr., Boise State
Malcolm Mitchell., Jr. Georgia
Donte Moncrief, Jr., Ole Miss
Tracy Moore, Sr., Oklahoma State
Alex Neutz, Jr., Buffalo
Kevin Norwood, Sr., Alabama
DeVante Parker, Jr., Louisville
Charone Peake, Jr., Clemson
Bernard Reedy, Sr., Toledo
Tevin Reese, Sr., Baylor
Paul Richardson, Jr., Colorado
Allen Robinson, Jr., Penn State
Shaq Roland, So., South Carolina
Alonzo Russell, So., Toledo
Jalen Saunders, Sr., Oklahoma
Jaxon Shipley, Jr., Texas
Tommy Shuler, So., Marshall
Devin Smith, Jr., Ohio State
Willie Snead, Jr., Ball State
Josh Stewart, Jr., Oklahoma State
Devin Street, Jr., Pittsburgh
Eric Thomas, Sr., Troy
Jordan Thompson, So., West Virginia
Eric Ward, Sr., Texas Tech
Sammy Watkins, Jr., Clemson
Brandon Wimberly, Sr., Nevada

Big Ten spring game wrap-ups

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Some news, notes, quotes and other assorted tidbits from the three spring games contested across the Big Ten Saturday afternoon…

MICHIGAN STATE
To say that the Spartans’ quarterbacks struggled somewhat during today’s spring game would be an understatement of mammoth proportions.

MSU quarterbacks combined to go 22 of 53 for 386 yards, two touchdown and two interceptions.  Last year’s starter and presumptive front-runner for the job this season, Andrew Maxwell, completed just nine of his 20 attempts for 120 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass.  The strong-armed Connor Cook, who has gained some ground on Maxwell this spring, threw for 217 yards and a scoring toss but also completed less than 40 percent of his passes (10-26).  Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor completed five of six passes — three to his offensive teammates, two to his defensive teammates.

All in all, it was rough outing at a position where the Spartans may have more questions exiting spring than they did entering it.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said that the incumbent would top the depth chart entering summer, but stopped short of anointing him as the season-opening starter.

“I think you leave here at the end of spring saying that (Andrew) Maxwell comes into the summer camp number one based on knowledge and consistency in terms of performance.”

For his part, Maxwell feels as if he’s done enough to retain the job.

“I feel like I’ve done everything that I could do to make my case to the coaches to be the guy, and I feel like every day I came out and got better,” the player said. “I took a competitive mindset to every practice, and the ultimate decision is with Coach D.”

— The Spartans’ defense accounted for two touchdowns in the Green team’s 24-17 win over the White squad: a Chris Laneaux 25-yard interception return and a fumble recovery by Kyler Elsworth that was returned 41 yards.  On the other side of the ball, Aaron Burbridge caught five passes for 113 yards.

— Former MSU quarterback great Kirk Cousins, now Robert Griffin III‘s backup in Washington, returned to the East Lansing campus as color analyst for the Big Ten Network’s coverage of the game.  Based on Cousins’ comments, it doesn’t appear this will be his last rodeo in the booth.

“I want the football thing to last as long as it possibly can, but at the same time, in the offseason it makes a lot of sense to pursue other opportunities and prepare yourself for whenever football ends,” Cousins said. “And that’s why I’m here today, and it’s just a bonus I get to be back in familiar territory, watching the team that I love.”

— One of the coolest parts of the Spartans’ spring game was their helmets.  Specifically, the stickers on the back of the helmets honoring those who were killed or injured by the bombings at last Monday’s Boston Marathon.  Very classy gesture:

Michigan State Helmets

PENN STATE
If you were an individual looking for some clarity at the quarterback position coming out of the Nittany Lions’ spring game, you are likely somewhat disappointed at this point in time.

Following the game, head coach Bill O’Brien stated very firmly that neither Steven Bench nor Tyler Ferguson (pictured) had grabbed hold of the starting job and the competition would continue into the “voluntary” workouts and on into summer camp.  Both players completed nine of 15 passes, with Bench throwing for 99 yards and Ferguson 90.  Ferguson tossed two touchdown passes to Bench’s one.

As has been the case for most of the spring, the second-year coach was, for the most part, pleased with the duo’s performance.

“I thought they both (Bench and Ferguson) produced,” O’Brien said. “I thought both had some nice throws. Like everybody, coaches and players included, in every game you play, you wish you had some plays back. I’m sure they do too. I thought they both did some decent things out there today.”

In his post-game talk with reporters, O’Brien made it perfectly clear where the competition stands.

“I’d say, no, I’m not any closer as I sit here right now,” the coach said when asked about naming a starter. “Eventually, I’ll have to make a decision.”

O’Brien added that he will now go back and look at all of the spring practice tapes as they work toward naming a starter at the position.

The real competition, though, won’t begin until August; Christian Hackenberg, a five-star 2013 recruit rated as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in this year’s class, will join the competition this summer, with most expecting the Virginia product to make a very serious run at the starting job as a true freshman.

— In front of 28,000 or so fans who braved the rain and snow and cold, the the Blue team (defense) dropped the White squad (offense), 67-47.  It was the second straight year the defense has “won” the spring game.

A big reason for the defensive win?  The Nittany Lions’ defense accounted for nine sacks, which counted four points apiece in the scoring system utilized by O’Brien.

— Youth was certainly served for the Nittany Lions as the school noted that all six players who ran, caught or threw a touchdown will be a freshman or sophomore this season.  Both of the front-runners for the starting QB job will be sophomores.

— Another of the young ones was running back Akeel Lynch, who led all rushers with 83 yards on his 13 carries.

— “I feel terrible because I love that city,” O’Brien said of the tragic events in Boston this past week. “I grew up 20 minutes north of that city and my brother Tommy is heavily involved in that city and so is my older brother and my dad and my mom so I feel terrible for them. … Boston is a very resilient city and we caught him last night so that was good.”

WISCONSIN
At the end of Gary Andersen‘s first spring as the Badgers’ head coach, and in the midst of a crowded quarterback competition, it was UW’s defense winning most of the plaudits in Madison Saturday afternoon.

Thanks to the “unique” scoring systems that are all the rage during spring games, the final score appears to be a high-scoring offensive affair: Cardinal 61, White 47.  The former team consisted of the Badgers’ defense, the latter the offense.

The game wasn’t a true measure of either unit, however, as Andersen lamented afterwards that “[w]e’re basically missing six starters right now on the defensive side that didn’t play a snap today, and four or five on the offensive side.”

Also, the fact that the game was televised on the Big Ten Network led Andersen to keep his team’s cards very close to his vest.

“I will say this: Defense today was very vanilla. Offensively, we were very generic, and defensively, we were very generic,” the former Utah State head coach said. “We did throw the ball, bottom line, and we did catch the ball better than we have all spring, and that was very encouraging.”

— The Cardinal team totaled 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks in the game.  As those plays were worth two points apiece, the defense scored 36 of its 61 points off those two types of plays.  They also earned 24 points off of eight three-and-outs.

— As far as the quarterback battle goes, two players, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips, received the vast majority of the reps.  Stave completed 15 of his 20 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, while Phillips went 8-of-13 for 82 yards.  The other quarterbacks on the roster, including former Maryland Terrapin Danny O’Brien, attempted just three passes each.

— Running back Melvin Gordon, who will be charged with the task of replacing Montee Ball, ran for a team-high 74 yards and scored the game’s only touchdown on the ground.  He also added three catches for 35 yards.

— “Yeah, we’re in a good spot,” Andersen said when asked if his team is where he thought it’d be at the end of the spring.  “You’re never going to get everything you want. You’re never going to have it perfect. We wanted consistency. I think we got that. We wanted effort. I think we got that.”