One would have thought that Kirk Cousins would have demonstrated to be a quality college quarterback after passing for 2,680 yards and finishing second in the Big Ten in efficiently rating in 2009. However, a funny thing happened on the way to Spartan Stadium.
After two games this season, Cousins is now perceived by some to be the weak link of Michigan State's offense.
Cousins may have only thrown for 328 yards so far this season, but his low yardage is more a result of Michigan State's explosive running game than his poor performance. Last season, the inconsistency of the running game hampered the effectiveness of the passing attack. Unexpectedly, The Spartans currently rank 11th in the FBS in rushing.
The team is averaging 7.8 yards per carry behind tailbacks Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. Baker, the sophomore, has 300 rushing yards on 32 carries, and Bell, the true freshman, has gained 190 yards on 20 attempts. Each player already has three rushing touchdowns.
Against Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic, the Spartans' offensive line has had an six advantage up front. It wouldn't have been foolish for Coach Mark Dantonio and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell not to emphasize the running game.
In reality, the offense is looking exactly the way Dantonio wants it to. He wants the team to run the ball effectively and then use play action passes to generate big plays through the air. Cousins is averaging 8.63 yards per attempt and 14.09 yards per completion after two games-an increase from last year's averages.
Cousins is only one completion short of matching his completion rate from last year. Although he has seen his quarterback rating in the FBS drop from 27th last year to 43rd this season, Cousins has only dropped 0.12 points in his rating.
There is no doubt that the passing game will become more dominant when called upon. Keshawn Martin is one of the best big-play wide receivers in the nation. Mark Dell and B.J Cunningham are reliable options to help the Spartans keep the chains moving. Even ex-quarterback Keith Nichol is catching on fast to his new responsibilities as a pass catcher.
To go along with the threats at wide receiver, Michigan State has two quality tight ends in Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum. Believe it or not, the Spartans were ranked 28th in the FBS last season in passing.
Despite suggestions of regressing, Cousins has shown this year the ability to take over a game when he has too. In the first half against Western Michigan, he led the Spartans to a touchdown drive during a two-minute drill that basically sealed the victory for MSU.
Cousins throws a tight spiral and utilizes his smarts to form himself into a quality quarterback. He is an expert at using hard counts to draw opposing defenses offsides and pump fakes to deceive defensive backs.
Cousins had a strong performance against Notre Dame last year despite a costly interception late in the game, and there is no reason why he cannot duplicate that performance this Saturday at Spartan Stadium. If the Fighting Irish stack the line of scrimmage to stop Michigan State's running game, the Spartans will expose Notre Dame's lack of speed through the air.
Based on last season's results, it is strange that the weakness of the team has switched from the performance of the defense to the play of Cousins. Despite having strong linebackers like Greg James, the Spartans struggled to rush the quarterback and defend the pass. Only Idaho and Nevada allowed more passing touchdowns than Michigan State in 2009.
Against Notre Dame, there should be concern how well MSU's secondary will play, and how the Spartans will defend Kyle Randolph since opposing starting tight ends have already caught 11 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown against Michigan State.this year.
Throughout his life, Cousins has proved people wrong. He was prepared to attend Western Michigan when it was the only FBS school to recruit him. Michigan State didn't offer Cousins a scholarship until seeing him play in a basketball game. There were doubts he would beat out Nichol for the starting quarterback position last season.
On Saturday against Notre Dame, Cousins will attempt to make his skeptics eat their words again. To modify a phrase from a once-famous television show: Kirk Cousins, you are the not the weakest link.