Time is running short for Michigan State, which is undefeated and playing great defense -- but still needs to figure out which of its four quarterbacks can be trusted against better competition.
The next auditions take place Saturday when the Spartans host Youngstown State of the Championship Subdivision. Next week, Michigan State plays at Notre Dame, and the Big Ten schedule begins after that. The Spartans have tried Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor at quarterback already this season, and now freshman Damion Terry may have a chance to join the mix.
"We want to find the one guy. We want the one guy to emerge. I don't care who it is," coach Mark Dantonio said. "They're all great young people. They're all people that have had success in high school. They're all people that have talent. But one of those guys have to emerge."
What makes the situation tricky is that there are so many candidates. In last weekend's win over South Florida, Cook started and O'Connor and Maxwell both played as well. The time-sharing arrangement meant none of the three got to throw more than 11 passes.
"It's tough to get three quarterbacks ready, first of all," Dantonio said. "It's almost impossible to get four. Tough to get three. You can get two. Usually when you're repping throughout a game week, your number one quarterback gets most of the reps. He gets probably 65 percent of the reps, I would say."
The plan this week was for Cook to be the No. 1 quarterback for the purpose of practice reps, with Terry at No. 2. Terry, a freshman, hasn't played yet this season, so the Spartans (2-0) have to weigh his ability and potential against the value of redshirting him. Youngstown State (2-0) is one of the top teams in the FCS, so Michigan State can't look past this game.
Maxwell was the starter last year, so he at least has enough experience that reps in practice aren't quite as important.
Here are five things to watch in Michigan State-Youngstown State:
TERRY'S STATUS: All of Michigan State's quarterbacks remain under the microscope, but if Terry plays, that will be a major development. If the Spartans decide to remove his redshirt, he'll be under pressure to give the offense a real lift in a way the other quarterbacks haven't. Terry was a three-year starter for Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Pa., and he drew good reviews from Dantonio during fall camp.
DOMINANT DEFENSE: The Spartans might have been victimized by an upset already if not for their defense, which contributed four touchdowns over the first two games. The offense only scored two. "I think the thing that we see here defensively is we've got a system in place," Dantonio said.
"Our players understand the system. We have a staff in place that understands how to correct a system if it breaks down. We can fix it." Defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun has scored three touchdowns already, including two last weekend.
UPSET BID: Michigan State beat Western Michigan and South Florida to start the season, but a case could be made that Youngstown State, despite its FCS designation, is as good as either of those teams. The Penguins won at Pittsburgh early last season.
"Every year's a different year. Every year you're a different football team," Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford said. "We've been in big games before."
PROTECT THE BALL: With Michigan State's offense struggling so much, avoiding turnovers will be a priority for the Penguins. They want to make the Spartans cover a lot of ground to score. Through two games, Youngstown State has fumbled six times, although the Penguins lost only two of them.
ON THE GROUND: Michigan State is averaging 4.4 yards per carry so far despite losing workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell early to the NFL. The Spartans seemed hesitant to rely too much on the running game against South Florida, perhaps because they wanted the quarterbacks to have a chance to show what they could do. That could change if the passing game remains stagnant.
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