EAST LANSING - The play at left tackle was a little bit shaky against Youngstown State as both Jared McGaha and Dan France were flagged for respective false start penalties. But the play on the right side appeared good.
A holding penalty on a broken play notwithstanding, Chris McDonald was his reliable self at right guard and redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland was solid in his first career start at right tackle.
"I have a long way to go and a lot of stuff to work on to become the player that I know I can become," said Burkland, a 6-foot-7, 305-pounder from Sunbury, Ohio. "But other than that, I think I played good and I had a great time out there. Chris McDonald was out there next to me and he has been helping me through things for a long time preparing me for this night. I still have a lot to work on, but I felt like I had a great first game."
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Burkland has taken most of the reps at the No. 1 right tackle position since spring football. During his time at the top of the depth chart Burkland and McDonald have gradually developed a good feel for one another. That growing chemistry was present during the season opener.
"It was our first game, so that is another step in the process," said Burkland. "I felt like we did well together and I could tell on my side of the line that Chris and I are starting to get more comfortable with each other. Tonight, a guy came inside and I knew that he would be there and sure enough he was there. I saved Chris's butt on that play and he saved my butt a number of times. It all works out."
Michigan State's offensive line was guilty on three of their team's eight penalties. Each penalty - two false starts and a holding call- took place in the first half.
"I felt like we did a pretty good job for us being together for the first time," Burkland said. "It is not what I wanted, exactly, I felt like we should have done a lot better. But it is our first game and we still have a lot more football. This is the beginning."
Gholston, Rush gained confidence as game progressed
The biggest penalty of the game occurred on Youngstown State's lone scoring drive, as sophomore defensive end William Gholston jumped offsides on 3-and-10 to give the Penguins new life. Had Gholston stayed home Youngstown State would have had to attempt a 32-yard field goal.
"I was a little bit too anxious I guess," Gholston said. " I feel like it was my fault for the six points because I jumped off-sides. I shouldn't have made that mental mistake."
Gholston recorded 6 tackles and led Michigan State with two tackles for loss in the opener.
"I don't feel like I had a great game," said Gholston. "I made mistakes, I didn't get to the quarterback as much as I wanted to. It is not just me, I feel like everybody on our team can get better at everything no matter what it is."
It took Gholston a quarter to get into the flow of the game. Both of Gholston's tackles behind the line of scrimmage came in the second quarter. The former Detroit Southeastern star dropped sturdy junior Jamaine Cook for a loss of one on the same drive he teamed with Jerel Worthy to down Jordan Thompson for a four-yard loss.
"Toward the end of the first half I got a feel for the styles that their offensive line liked to block," said Gholston. "We played faster during the second half."
Redshirt freshman Marcus Rush came away from his debut as a starting defensive end opposite feeling good his performance in the first game of his Spartan career.
"I think I did well," Rush explained. "I just have fix the little things and make sure that I do the right thing next game.
Rush finished the game with four tackles. The former Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller standout led the Spartan defense two quarterback hurries.
Junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy had a positive impression of Rush and Gholston in their debut as Spartan starters.
"I think they played pretty well," Worthy said. "Will got into a rhythm as the game went on and Marcus started to get a lot more pressure on the passer in the second half and we just have to keep working to improve. That was their first game as actual starters and it was a night game in Spartan Stadium and that can be a little bit overwhelming."
Burkland, Gholston, and Rush are just a few of the Spartans that made their career start against Youngstown State. Sophomore Isaiah Lewis made his first start at strong safety, junior Steve Gardiner made his first start at Sam linebacker, junior Rashad White made his first start at nose tackle, and Dion Sims made his first start at tight end.
Two years ago Worthy made the first start of his career against FCS opponent Montana State. A few games later the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle emerged as the most productive member of the Spartan defensive line.
"Once you get the first game up under your belt, you go out there and start to enjoy yourself a little bit," Worthy said. "When you get in the film room coach and (Ted) Gill is able to break down all of your pros and your cons you can see a big difference."
Lewis played all 13 games in 2010 as the nickel back for the Spartan defense. The Indianapolis (Ind.) native finished his first game as a starter with three tackles and an interception. Lewis returned the interception 13 yards to the Youngstown State 17-yard line, setting up Le'Veon Bell who scored his second rushing touchdown of the day from three yards out to put the Spartans ahead 28-6 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Problem with execution, not energy
Michigan State players and coaches did not sense a lack of energy against Youngstown State. In fact, Spartan players were sky high when they ran out of the tunnel to the cheers of a capacity crowd amped up for a night game at Spartan Stadium.
"Words can't really describe it coming out of the tunnel with all the other athletes right there," explained senior captain Trenton Robinson. I was super excited and I can't really tell you how excited I was other than I was as excited as I could be."
Robinson was not alone.
"I can't even describe it, it was unbelievable," said Marcus Rush. "I don't think I had jitters, I think it was just more excitement to be out there. It is something that I have been waiting so long for."
The problem was execution.
"I feel like everybody went out and worked hard, we just didn't execute the way that we were supposed to," explained the three-year starter in the defensive backfield. "I couldn't give you a percentage (of the potential we played at). It is either you are or you aren't. I feel like everybody went out and tried to execute and went hard but we didn't execute the way we should have."
The solution is film study and practice.
"If we work harder and continue to get better we are going to be a more dominating defense," said Worthy. "You try and take the good with the bad. You know there are going to be some plays that you are not in the best position to make and you just have to go to the film room. We come in on Sunday and watch a lot of film and you will see a lot guys in a greater comfort zone next week."
Execution was better in the second half against Youngstown State.
"I feel like we went in at halftime and we made some adjustments," said Robinson. "Coaches came up with some ideas and we made adjustments and I feel like we executed better during the second half than we had in the first half."
As a team leader Robinson believes the Youngstown State game will motivate his team to work even harder during practice this week.
"It is hard to look at it as adversity because we won the game by 22 points, but at the same time there was some adversity and it will help up prepare for next week," said Robinson. "We know that we can point to two or three plays that might give them that push to get a first down and then get a touchdown."