Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner deviated from the traditional playbook in Saturday's spring game. The result was a sneak preview of a more free-wheeling offense that could power the Spartans to another Big Ten Conference championship and the first College Football Playoff.
Just four points separated Michigan State from an appearance in the 2013 season's BCS Championship Game. Those four points were the difference in the Spartans' 17-13 loss at Notre Dame in Week 4.
But while the final point-total gap was narrow, the Notre Dame loss was indicative of the most glaring question mark Michigan State faced.
The Spartans were prone to bouts of offensive inconsistency last season. Playing with one of the nation's elite defenses certainly widened their margin for error, but the road to 13-1 was often not pretty.
Michigan State scored 26 points against Western Michigan, the nation's No. 105 scoring defense, before Connor Cook took over as starting quarterback; 21 points against South Florida, ranked No. 74; and 14 points against the No. 113 scoring defense, Purdue.
Of course, those three opponents combined for just 19 points. Michigan State made its bones on the defensive end in 2013, and the Spartans' identity will again be shaped on that side of the ball.
The defense was aggressive throughout the spring game. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper blindsided reserve quarterback Damion Terry on a blitz at one point in the first half, and Terry went to the sideline rattled. He returned in a red, no-contact jersey.
But the Spartans offense also took the fight to its stellar defensive counterparts. And considering Michigan State will see few defenses as good as its own in 2014—if any—the spring showing suggests the sky is the limit.
Cook saw the team's potential a season ago, as he told Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated.
"We felt like we could have been right in there," Cook said. "We'd have loved to have been in there against Florida State or Auburn."
Cook entered the offseason off arguably his best performance as a Spartan, throwing for 332 yards in January's 24-20 Rose Bowl defeat of Stanford. He exuded the same kind of confidence in Saturday's scrimmage, finding a variety of targets.
Tight end Josiah Price looks ready for a star turn. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Price caught 17 passes for 210 yards.
If his performance Saturday is any indication, expect a significantly heavier workload. Cook targeted him frequently, and Price capitalized with some tough receptions in traffic, including an outstretched grab up the middle that went for a big gain.
A big, physical target like Price is the ideal complement to the punishing running style of running back Jeremy Langford and the finesse game of wide receiver Tony Lippett, who also made some impressive receptions Saturday.
Cook also hooked up with wide receiver Aaron Burbridge for a first-half touchdown, which the quarterback celebrated with a piggyback ride from one of his offensive lineman.
Terry, who continued his battle with Tyler O'Connor for the No. 2 spot, lined up at wide receiver with Cook behind center. Terry may not see action as a quarterback in 2014, but he showed off just why Warner will find some role for him, taking a carry 23 yards for a touchdown.
No one will confuse the 2014 Michigan State offense with that of Oregon—a team the Spartans face in Week 2, coincidentally. But with more consistency and confidence, this group is poised to help Michigan State break through to the College Football Playoff.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
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