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Big Ten preview: Michigan State

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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Entering the 2012 season, expectations were high at Michigan State. The Spartans were fresh off back-to-back 11-win seasons, returned one of the top defenses in the nation and had one of the best running backs around -- junior Le'Veon Bell.

It seemed the Spartans were destined for a return trip to the Big Ten Championship game and a shot at reaching their first Rose Bowl since 1988.

But as the saying goes, that's why they play the games.

The Spartans stumbled to a 7-6 mark, salvaged only by a victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the second straight bowl win for Michigan State.

What was most frustrating, however, was the fact the Spartans lost five conference games, all by a total of 13 points. There was a one-point loss to Ohio State, an overtime loss at home to Iowa and a late loss to Northwestern. Throw in a last-second loss to archrival Michigan and a heartbreaking defeat at home against Nebraska and it had Michigan State wondering what happened to all the good breaks it got the previous two seasons.

"It was the year of the inches that we didn't come up with," coach Mark Dantonio said.

It was a common theme throughout the off-season -- finding the inches.

It's hardly a simple concept. How do you turn a close loss into a close victory? That is what the Spartans have been tasked with heading into 2013.

"There's no one that would argue that we're not close," senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "We won those games the previous two years. Now it's just getting back and being able to stop that team at the end of the game or hold the ball for a couple of more downs at the end of the game. We're right there."

It has led Dantonio to come up with a new motto for the upcoming season -- "Chase it."

It's the mentality the team has taken the entire off-season and will once the year kicks off against Western Michigan.

The difference, however, won't just be in the approach. The defense will likely be just as good, but questions abound with an offense that scored only 20 points a game last season, a total that was near the bottom of the Big Ten.

Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell is being pushed by sophomore Connor Cook, as well as redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and freshman Damion Terry. The running back race is up for grabs in camp with true freshmen Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams battling juniors Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford as well as redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, a converted linebacker.

The offensive line is also a question mark as injuries have been a constant issue over the past two seasons.

The schedule is also far easier this season as Michigan State avoids Ohio State and Wisconsin.

But the fact remains, if the offense does not improve, it could be another tough season. If it gets better, Bullough is certain of the outcome.

"I'd say we're undefeated if they get 28 points a game," he said.

That's the edge the Spartans hope to rediscover.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Michigan State's opener isn't quite at the level of last season's primetime debut against Boise State, but that will be good for an offense trying to find its way. In fact, the first three non-conference games should be the perfect way to start as the Spartans host Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State. It should be enough time to get things in order heading into the final non-conference game at Notre Dame. The Spartans had won six straight at Notre Dame but have lost their last in their last two trips to South Bend and have beaten the Irish just once in the last four seasons.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: It might seem a bit too simple, but Michigan State needs to score more points. Last season, numerous dropped passes stymied the production and damaged the confidence of Maxwell. Later, as Le'Veon Bell became such a dominant runner, defenses were able to key on the run, putting tons of pressure on the Michigan State defense to be perfect. They were outstanding, but not perfect, leading to the close defeats and frustrating season. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar is gone to the New Orleans Saints and former quarterbacks coach Dave Warner takes over as co-coordinator with newly hired Jim Bollman, the former coordinator for Jim Tressel at Ohio State. There are sure to be some tweaks to the game plan, but whatever those changes might be, scoring more points must be the end result.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Michigan State has a long history of outstanding place-kickers and the search begins again as Dan Conroy capped off his career with an unsteady senior season in 2012. In comes a true freshman, Michael Geiger, who was rated the top kicker in the nation last season. He will battle walk-on Kevin Cronin for the job, but it appears it's Geiger's to lose. The rest of Michigan State's special teams should be solid as All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler is back for his junior year, but all eyes will be on Geiger as Michigan State expects to be in just as many tight battles as it was in 2012.
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