MOUNT PLEASANT - Michigan State packed 70 football players on a few busses, headed north for an hour, past the cider mill in St. Johns, exited left when the sign said "Mackinac Bridge Keep Right," and enjoyed what turned out to be a self-improvement scrimmage of sorts.
Michigan State needed to be sharp and physical in order to produce a blowout victory over Central Michigan, and that's exactly what the Spartans were. The Spartans weren't dominant for all 60 minutes, but they were good enough that they could feel like they got something accomplished, while knowing they still have a lot of work to do in order to close more ground on dreams of a Big Ten championship and continued Top 10 membership.
Sixty-five of the 70 saw action in this game, a 41-14 victory for Michigan State.
Central Michigan offered some resistance. The Chippewas showed improvement in their offensive ground attack in comparison to last year's blowout. The Spartans had to strain a little bit in order to hold CMU under 100 yards rushing (the Chippewas netted 72 yards on the ground).
MSU allowed CMU to gain 3.3 yards per carry. Only three opponents averaged more than 3.4 per carry against the Spartans last year - Wisconsin (twice, 5.3 and 3.4), Notre Dame (3.4) and Youngstown State (3.7).
Aside from improving to 2-0, as part of a 24-5 record over the last three seasons, coach Mark Dantonio also witnessed the following:
His deep but unproven pool of wide receivers expanded to include a pair of true freshmen, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings.
Former five-star linebacker recruit turned defensive end Lawrence Thomas made a debut on the offensive side of the ball, serving as a back-up fullback.
Pass protection showed improvement, just in terms of general communication. Central Michigan's pass rush isn't nearly as talented as Boise State's of a week ago, but the Chippewas came through like a dutiful sparring partner by frequently sending wholesale blitzes at Michigan State.
There were a couple of occasions when MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell was knocked down while CMU sent more pass rushers than MSU had pass protectors. But MSU adjusted and began taking advantage of CMU's cover-zero, man-to-man blitz schemes.
More On Burbridge, Kings, WRs
This game eventually amounted to a proving ground and developmental exercise for Michigan State's cloudy wide receiver situation.
Dantonio stated at the outset of the week that he wanted to expand the opportunities for young receivers to step forward and compete with those who took multiple snaps in the season opener, namely the previously injured Burbridge. WRs coach Terry Samuel stated that "nobody's job is safe."
Burbridge, a Top 100 recruit who was ranked the No. 1 high school prospect in the state last year, missed most of August training camp with a lower body injury. He returned to practice last week and showed enough in a short amount of time to merit an important audition at Central Michigan on Saturday.
Kings, a fellow true freshman, has been similarly impressive in practice.
They both looked good in brief opportunities against Central Michigan. Burbridge had two catches for 14 yards during garbage time. Kings had two catches for 18 yards and showed a little more make-you-miss ability, at least in this short specimen of snaps.
Neither player was give a chance to make a play downfield. By the time they got in the game, Michigan State had secured a blowout and was not interested in running up the score.
'We wanted to get those guys in in the third or fourth quarter," Dantonio said. "If we put them in, we wanted to get the ball to them a little bit, just on hitches, just to see them make plays. You can see that they can make plays. I think it is going to be positive for us."
Burbridge and Kings can still be redshirted for the 2012 season, but not if they see time in two more games apiece. For now, Dantonio indicated that he plans on activating both players for the entire season.
"I may not like it five years from now," Dantonio said of taking their redshirts off and possibly losing their fifth year of eligibility, "but I like it right now."
"Thats a tough (decision) because you want to make sure if you are going to play your freshmen that they are going to continue to play. I talked with them on the sideline. We practiced them all week. I think they have great skills. There is no question when they get the all in their hands they can make things happen. But they just have to get in the rhythm of the whole offense. But they can be big-play players for us.
"They wanted to play. They knew the situation so we've played them now. Now we'll use them. We'll get them a little bit more involved possibly."
Dantonio decided to activate them for this game partly due to inconsistency in wide receiver play in the season opener against Boise State. Starting split end Tony Lippett allowed a pass to slip through his hands for an interception last week, and also fumbled after making a catch on a deep ball. He was also flagged for a false start.
Keith Mumphery, who was flagged last week for an illegal block in the back, was given Lippett's starting job this week. MSU threw a deep incompletion intended for Mumphery on the first play of the game.
Mumphery, a sophomore, had 4 catches for 52 yards against Central Michigan. Lippett, a sophomore, had 2 catches for 21 yards.
Junior Bennie Fowler had a career-high 8 catches for 99 yards.
"We went into the game saying we had to get our wide outs going a little bit more than we did last week," Dantonio said. "I thought we did that."
DeAnthony Arnett, a sophomore transfer from Tennessee, had 1 catch for 48 yards, thanks to a big play off a deadly out-and-up move.
Redshirt freshman Andre Sims had 1 catch for 15 yards.
Junior tight end Dion Sims, who was the leading receiver in the Boise State game, had 3 catches for 48 yards including another high-point catch on a 20-yard out from Andrew Maxwell.
"I thought (Dion) Sims had a big catch," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony Arnett had a huge catch in the game on an out-and-up. Obviously Bennie Fowler played pretty well, and Mumphery and Lippett had a couple of catches. We got the ball spread around a little bit."
Dantonio said he believed Fowler and Mumphery elevated themselves with their performance on Saturday.
"Yeah, I think they are good players," Dantonio said. "We have said all along that we have great depth, top to bottom. I think you saw that out there today. You saw some guys making some plays. With that being said, you don't really know who is going to be the guy this early in the season as we get into this thing. Our 10th game, ninth game, eighth game, we need to have answers."
Fowler helped provide some in this game.
"I thought Bennie had a great game today," Dantonio said. "I thought Keith had the ball thrown to him and caught the ball well when it was there, but timing was off maybe on a couple."
Dantonio went into the season opener with a pool of six candidates for wide receiver duty: Fowler, Mumphery, Arnett, Lippett, Sims and Jeremy Langford. Langford saw a couple of snaps at WR on Saturday, but also had nine carries for 23 yards as a tailback.
With Langford seeing his role shifted more to being a back-up running back, Burbridge and Kings have entered the picture to create a seven-man pool of active talent.
Dantonio made no apologies for burning their redshirts if it proves to be part of the process of acquiring pass catching consistency.
"We are going to make sure that we do everything we can to win every single football game," Dantonio said. "And if a guy is good enough to play, we are not going to hold him back. That's sort of what we have tried to do every year. We were very close to playing (third string safety) Demetrious Cox, and sort of just don't want to rush into anything and blow a redshirt if we are not going to play him a lot.
"Those other two guys (Burbridge and Kings) are going to have to start playing more, whether that be special teams or whatever it is. So that's a good thing and they are going to get some experiences."
More On LT At FB
Thomas said he first learned of the coaches' plans to try him at fullback on Sunday. He excitedly approved of the mission.
"When he said he needed me at fullback, I'm going to do what he said needed to be done," Thomas said. "I like fullback. I played a lot of offensive positions in high school, so offense isn't new to me."
Thomas served as a blocking back on approximately 10 to 15 snaps, Saturday. He caught one pass for 7 yards.
"LT is a guy that obviously is a great football player," Dantonio said. "We really felt that we gotta get the guy going somewhere. He's too good to not play."
Thomas (6-3, 295, R-Fr., Detroit) moved from linebacker to defensive end during the summer. He redshirted last fall after sustaining a knee injury during August camp. He sat out with knee and shoulder complications this past spring while naturally putting on weight and growing out of the linebacker picture.
Thomas began practicing at defensive end for the first time in August. He has been listed as a third-string defensive end, behind starters William Gholston, Marcus Rush and second-stringers Shilique Calhoun and Joel Heath. Third-stringers Jeremy Gainer and Denzel Drone also traveled with the Spartans on Saturday. Drone plays a regular role.
Drone experimented at tight end in the spring, but did not crack the four-deep and was moved back to defense.
"We have some defensive ends that are pretty solid," Dantonio said. "He (Thomas) missed some time as far as playing on the defensive side of the ball. The depth issue is not at defensive end; the depth issue is more at 'F' (fullback) probably. So you put a 280-pound fullback in there and he can move some people. It's going to be a positive for us as we go."
Dantonio said Thomas will continue to practice both on offense and defense.
"He can play either side," Dantonio said. "I think what we have to do is practice him on both sides. He will be a dual player, much like Tony Lippett was last year. He is not going to go entirely over there to offense.
"In the big scheme of things I still think of him as a defensive player down the road, but we gotta get him playing football. That's what we want to do."
Thomas said is move to offense was received warmly be his teammates.
"When I came over there in practice they were loving it, like 'Oh yeah we got LT over here!'" Thomas said. "The whole team, Le'Veon, the o-line, receivers, they were excited for me to be over there with them. So I just wanted to do what's best for the team.
"Whatever happens happens. I'm just going to keep grinding in practice and hopefully I can just do my best at both positions. I'm a defensive player but I was real happy to get out on there on the field and go make plays at fullback.
"Right now I'm just doing basic things (at fullback) but they said they are going to keep on throwing stuff at me every week."