October 28, 2012

Teammates saw something different in Maxwell

MADISON, Wis. - Mark Dantonio looked into Andrew Maxwell's eyes prior to the game-tying drive. And again just before overtime, and again seconds before Maxwell's game-winning touchdown pass.

Dantonio saw something a little different in Maxwell, Saturday. Gradually, the rest of the team saw it too. The Spartans found something in Maxwell here on the other side of Lake Michigan. And it fueled the team, right when it looked like they might fall to the other side of .500.

What did Dantonio see? What did he think, when Michigan State trailed by seven with less than two minutes to play?

"I've got a very confident young man on the field and a guy that was going to step up and go," Dantonio said.

That's the way a head coach is supposed to feel about his starting quarterback. Maxwell, for all of his arm talent and potential, had left plays unmade during Michigan State's two recent losses. There were times when he didn't seem confident and shied away from being a "step up and go" guy.

Earlier in this Wisconsin game, there were a few unfulfilled reads, as MSU scored just three points through the first 59 minutes.

Maxwell wasn't the main problem. But if Michigan State was going to come out of this late-October offensive coma and deliver a vital victory, it had to start with Maxwell.

He started it. He changed. The skittish feet we saw late in the Iowa game were gone. The reluctance to make decisions in the Michigan game vanished.

The change didn't begin with the game-tying drive in the final minutes. It didn't change during the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Fowler, which gave Michigan State a 16-13 victory.

It changed prior to that. The scoring plays at the end were just the culmination.

"I felt that, coming out the second half," Dantonio said of Maxwell's take-over confidence.

Maxwell began unveiling it on Michigan State's second drive of the third quarter.

On a third-and-four at MSU's 16-yard line, with frustration having fully set in on the Spartan offense, Maxwell read man-to-man coverage and audibled to a new play at the line of scrimmage.

The read Maxwell was expecting didn't come open initially. Flushed from the pocket, Maxwell kept his eyes downfield. He signaled his receiver, Keith Mumphery, to break off his route deeper.

Maxwell sprinted another step or two to give Mumphery time to gain separation. Scramble rules. Mumphery followed the QB's direction. For the first time, Maxwell orchestrated. He took this game to the back yard.

Mumphery came open and Maxwell fired it to him for a gain of 23. Maxwell looked like Kirk Cousins on that play. It was a new feel, outside the bounds of offensive structure. He was instinctive, competitive, decisive.

That play didn't change the game, but a bigger change was under way.

Directing Traffic

"I saw something different in Maxwell," said Le'Veon Bell. "Even before the fourth quarter, Maxwell was like, 'I'm trying to make plays.' He was keeping the play alive longer, throwing the ball deep, trying to create loose plays."

Three plays later, on third-and-five, Maxwell signaled Aaron Burbridge to keep going on a deep route down the left sideline. Then Maxwell let it fly ... and underthrew Burbridge for long an incompletion. MSU punted. But Maxwell had again taken initiative. He was shedding the "Mr. Careful" constraints which had been suppressing his talent.

Maxwell's very next pass might have been his best throw of the day, even thought it was knocked incomplete. It was second-and-7 on MSU's third drive of the second half. He attempted a 17-yard out to Mumphery, from the right hash to the left sideline, clear across the field. Accuracy, hose, timing. All of it. He showed it. Especially the timing.

Zone defenders covered Mumphery tightly on the play. The ball arrived in a small window just as Mumphery made a cut to the sideline. Mumphery may have been surprised that the ball was there already, or that it was thrown to him at all.

Maxwell had been late on some passes earlier in the day. On MSU's first drive of the second quarter, Mumphery was wide open on a 15-yard out cut against cover-three. Mumphery completed his cut and waited for the ball ... and waited. When the pass finally arrived, it took Mumphery out of bounds. Mumphery caught it, for an incompletion. Five players earlier, Maxwell was late in throwing to Bell in the flat.

But on this play, with Maxwell channeling perfection for a moment, the high-difficulty pass was delivered with precision.

Mumphery caught it for a second, but a Badger defensive back broke it up with a hard hit.

Two plays later, MSU punted. But Maxwell was already different.

Next drive, MSU ran it three times and punted.

Next drive, Mumphery dropped another pass. This one was a short out route.

Next play, Maxwell completed a pass to Lawrence Thomas, who fumbled.

Maxwell was having a strong second half, but it was hard to notice.

That's when he seemed to take on an attitude of, "Screw it. I'm doin' it."

Just 6:06 remained in the game the next time Maxwell took a snap. And that's when the rest of Camp Randall Stadium began to see the results of what had been bubbling and brewing throughout the day, throughout October, throughout four years of waiting his turn, throughout an unexpectedly humbling autumn.

Dantonio knew Maxwell had it in him. They talked about it on Thursday, "individually, quietly," Dantonio said.

They meet every week in Dantonio's office.

"Every time I have a chance to talk to Andrew, we talk about just being a gamer and scrapping and just growing and allowing things to just transition for him as a football player," Dantonio said. "Just sort of continue to grow."

A little sports psychiatry from the coach. Some pats of encouragement. Who knows? Those pats may have made the difference in Maxwell on this day, and made the difference in this game, which may prove to make the difference in this season.

Maxwell completed 8-of-9 passes for 69 yards during the game-tying drive, ending with a nifty 5-yard shovel pass to Bell on third-and-four.

"Maxwell was sharp," Dantonio said. "He hit a couple of passes down the chute. I think he stood in there under pressure."

He finished 24-of-39 for 216 yards with 2 TDs.

Maxwell's game-tying surgical procedure on the Badger defense began with a swing pass to Bell for 1 yard, then a throw to Fowler in the flat for 6.

Then on third-and-three, Dion Sims barreled through two defenders, turning a short pass in the flat into a one-man mission for 4 yards.

"Big play. Big play," Dantonio said. "Certainly to have Dion back in there gives us a positive. Big catch."

Sims, Maxwell's favorite target in September, missed the Iowa game and most of the Michigan game with an ankle injury. He sat out most of this one, but came on to help will the Spartans to victory, as he had against Boise State in the season opener.

Then Maxwell fired to Mumphery for 17 over the middle, and again for 12 on a comeback route. Maxwell trusted Mumphery despite the earlier drops.

"I was like, 'I just have to make a play,'" Mumphery said. "I don't worry about dropped passes. I don't worry about making mistakes. It happens. I'm not scared about making a mistake."

Neither is Maxwell. Not anymore.

"I think sometimes when you're a young player you just don't want to mess it up," Dantonio said. "You can't do that with the quarterback position. You have to go at it. I think that's what he did the second half. Even if we had just had three points he was going at it."

Then, Skyler Burkland was beaten for a sack and a 6-yard loss, a reminder that Maxwell was playing behind the team's sixth different starting offensive line of the year. The sack interrupted Maxwell's rhythm, destroyed down-and-distance, halted MSU's momentum. One last test from the football gods to see if the junior QB from Midland could rev it back up again.

"He was leading us," right guard Chris McDonald said of Maxwell. "He just said, 'Guys, we have to do it. We have to do this.'"

Simple Minds

The next play was a new one. They drew it up Saturday morning at the team hotel.

Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar and quarterbacks coach Dave Warner had a short, gameday meeting with Maxwell - Izzo-style - to go over a little tweak to a normal MSU play, just in case Wisconsin covered things in a certain way.

"It was at breakfast," Maxwell said. "Coach Roushar and Coach Warner, just on the back of a piece of paper."

They called the play "Caddy-Up."

As the game progressed, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland had indeed started playing low when MSU ran a slot slant route from a 2-by-1 formation.

The breakfast club solution was called into action.

The inside WR, Tony Lippett, ran MSU's usual slant action. And then he broke abruptly upfield for a slant-and-go.

Maxwell delivered the ball to Lippett for a 20-yard gain. Game-changer.

"You had them backed up, second-and-16," said Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema. "And (they) hit a big play like that; obviously hurt us."

"To see that," Maxwell said, "and kind of get the look that we were looking for, and the look that we drew it up for, that really kept the drive going for us."

But Maxwell thought he had blown it.

"I threw it a little high," Maxwell said. "I thought I over-threw him when it left my hand. And he made a great play because he is so tall and so long that he went up and got it."

Bell was initially confused.

"The first time I heard that play called in the huddle, I was like, 'Caddy-up? What is that?'" Bell said. "They drew it up today. That play came in big for us. We had a little counter to the way he (Borland) was playing. We ran it three times in the final drive. I think they stopped it one time."

MSU called the play quickly from the booth and the sideline. This was key in its execution. It gave Maxwell time at pre-snap.

Wisconsin had been showing two deep safeties at pre-snap all day. Sometimes, the Badgers would shift to a single-safety-high look at the snap. Sometimes they would stay with two deep. Either way, the positioning of the safeties alters WR routes and QB reads.

With the play call in early, and Maxwell at the line of scrimmage ahead of time, he was able to pause and wait, and wait, and wait, and look at the safeties before calling for the snap. He waited longer at the line of scrimmage on this play than at any time all day, just to make sure "Caddy-Up" was the right fit. He waited another second or two. The safeties didn't move. They were staying in two-deep. Then he called for the snap. The slant-and-go was on.

"They were able to adjust on a lot of things we were doing," said Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith. "We pretty much had the same defensive scheme going on throughout. They made great adjustments and were able to capitalize on certain things."

Alive And Kicking

Then came a 4-yard pass to Lippett on a hitch to the short side versus off coverage, taking what the defense was giving, to the 17-yard line.

Then more growth.

On second-and-six, Maxwell found his receivers covered. He did something that film study suggested he should have done once in overtime against Iowa, and a couple of times against Michigan. He tucked the ball and ran.

More ownership. More initiative. Screw it. He's doin' it.

This one went for a 7-yard gain on second-and-six.

"I thought he did a great job scrambling when he scrambled out of a problem and got some positive yards, which was big," Dantonio said.

Two plays later, on third-and-four at the 5-yard line, Roushar called for a shovel pass to Bell. MSU hadn't run a shovel pass all season.

"I knew I was going to score on that play," Bell said.

McDonald liked the play too.

"We hadn't run it in a long time and I felt like it was going to be a big play," McDonald said.

The play called for McDonald to pull from the back side and lead Bell around left end.

"Any time I'm pulling, I really enjoy it," McDonald said.

Did he get a piece of somebody on his blocking assignment?

"Yep," McDonald said. "And then Le'veon just came right up the middle and scored."

"We defended it for a second and then it came in behind," Bielema said.

"I definitely knew it was going to score," Bell said, "just by the way Wisconsin was playing the whole game. And they haven't seen it; we haven't ran it. And I knew Maxwell rolling out the other way, the d-end wasn't going to know I was coming under.

"The d-end just walked up, and Andrew made a great pitch and I just followed Chris McDonald and dove in the end zone."

In overtime, MSU led with left guard Blake Treadwell pulling three straight times on 'power' runs for gains of 9, 2 and 2.

Two plays later, Maxwell ended it.

On third-and-eight at the 12, Maxwell liked the coverage he saw. He gave a hand signal to Fowler.

Confident. Decisive. Doin' it.

Bielema sensed some sort of special automatic. He called time out.

Years of film study showed that Michigan State loved to go with double slants in this formation, against man-to-man, on third down. Maxwell had connected with Lippett on a slant against Wisconsin nickel back Darius Hillary for a first down on third-and-nine in the second quarter.

Hillary was on the field for this third down play in overtime, again in the slot area, again in press man-to-man.

Bielema wanted to remind Hillary of the tendencies.

"We talked about slant game," Bielema said.

Satisfied that his guys had a handle on it, Bielema sent them back onto the field in the same defense they had shown prior to the timeout - press man-to-man. MSU came with the same formation, in a rare repeat of a pre-timeout matchup.

"They were in man-to-man coverage and that play is one of our man beaters," Maxwell said.

But it wasn't the one Wisconsin expected.

"I checked to it the first time and then they called time out," Maxwell said. "I wasn't sure if we were going to get it again and sure enough we did."

Maxwell signaled to Fowler that their play was still on.

"I saw an opportunity to make a check to get us into a better play, and I have countless reps banked on that concept and that route," Maxwell said.

Hillary was shading inside for the slant. Fowler broke to the outside, and moved his hips past Hillary immediately. Fowler had body position, and maintained it. Maxwell through to the open air, outside to Fowler's back shoulder, away from Hillary. Game-winning TD.

It was retribution of sorts for Fowler, whose dropped passes may have cost Michigan State a chance to beat Notre Dame, and resulted in him losing his starting job after more problems against Eastern Michigan.

"It was very fitting it went to Bennie Fowler," Dantonio said.

Fowler had come through with the game-winning points at Indiana three weeks ago. Last week, he turned in a pair of highlight-reel catches at Michigan. Saturday at Wisconsin, he came through as a go-to receiver.

"Very happy that I was able to make the play, but my teammates picked me up constantly," Fowler said. "We are such a tight-knit group. I'm just proud of our defense, and the way the offense responded in that two-minute situation and then overtime."

Maxwell trusted Fowler's hands, and Fowler's read.

"That's a check we go over a lot in practice, week-to-week and then to see it and capitalize and to have Bennie make the play he did was great," Maxwell said. "I had the confidence to take what they were giving us, and what a great catch and what a great play for us."

What a great statement for Maxwell.

"That's just him growing," Bell said. "I see him growing up. The more he grows, the better he is going to get."

"He stood up and showed everybody that he really is that guy," Mumphery said. "Swag, man."

"He realized that as a quarterback he needs to step up," McDonald said, "and I think he did a great job. He put it on his shoulders that he has to execute and he has to throw it to certain players and he has to get it out and he has to lead us.

"He was like, 'Guys, keep going. We're going to get this.'"

So now the question is whether we have witnessed the beginning of the next stage of Maxwell's career, and with it the next stage of the 2012 season.

He seemed to hit a critical mass of experience and frustration on Saturday. When mixed together under pressure, it produced a diamond of poise, leadership, precision and instincts. Dantonio thinks it was a natural, logical progression.

"He hasn't had a lot of game reps coming into this season," Dantonio said. "There are going to be different teams every week, different coverages, different situations. And it takes time to gain that experience, but you have to be able to put it on the line out there and I think he did in that last series. He put it on the line. And he didn't flinch. That's what you have to do."

Maxwell credited the support of his teammates for helping with this breakthrough.

"Any time you can stick together as a team," Maxwell said, "and when you really start to see the fruits of being a family and sticking together and see that pay off after so many times it didn't go our way this year, to stick together and keep working and keep believing as a unit and as a family, to finally have one go our way, this could be the spark we need to kind of carry us over and kind of propel us the rest of the way."

The rest of the way seems much more navigable with a quarterback maturing, blossoming, growing warmer in a "step up and go" role as the weeks get colder.

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