EAST LANSING - Michigan State's offense was expected to experience some growing pains this year, but the Spartans' troublesome journey on that side of the ball has been more difficult than expected.
Michigan State ranks No. 11 in the Big Ten in scoring offense and No. 8 in total offense. The Spartans have scored a combined two touchdowns in their three losses.
"Our expectations in this season - we knew we would have a good defense, and they have played well," quarterbacks coach Dave Warner said during Wednesday interviews as MSU's weekly staff representative to media. "Offensively we knew we would be young but we thought we would make progress through the first couple of games and be able to gain some confidence and settle in and sort of be able to hang our hat on some things offensively and that hasn't happened. So we are unproven but we are still trying to find that magic formula."
Warner admits it's late for an offense to still be searching for the proper combination.
"I see progress but in the middle of the season you would like to see more progress," Warner said. "And it's not just the receivers, it's the offense and that includes us as coaches."
At wide receiver, the Spartans head into a third week with true freshman Aaron Burbridge in the starting lineup. He has provided some much-needed explosiveness.
Burbridge has led Michigan State in receptions in each of the past two games. He had five catches for 89 yards against Iowa, and eight catches for 134 yards at Indiana.
"He is coming along," Warner said. "He has a lot of talent. We are trying to find out who those top guys are, and
guys don't get as many reps as you would like to them to get to make that progress.
"It's a process. I see it getting better," Warner added. "We certainly have a long way to go. We are still juggling some guys around there, still trying to find out the top guys that we can go with on a consistent basis."
Warner acknowledged that the coaching staff is working to keep the Spartans' confidence high, after inconsistencies through seven games.
"We worry about confidence all the time, absolutely," Warner said. "When you go into a season with high expectations and you're sitting here 4-3, getting ready to go play in Ann Arbor, that's a factor. But it's Michigan and Michigan State. We just put all of our stuff aside and get ready to play football."
The Spartans have won four straight against Michigan. Does that success help instill some confidence?
"I hope so," Warner said. "You have guys who have experienced success not just against Michigan but at Michigan. But every year is a new year and they're better and we're not where we expected. That all plays into it, but it still all comes down to what goes down at 3:30 on Saturday."
No Word On Sims
Warner echoed the Dantonio line of junior tight end Dion Sims, Wednesday. Head coach Mark Dantonio said on Saturday and again on Tuesday that he would not divulge specifics on Sims' progress in trying to come back from an ankle injury which he sustained early in the Indiana game. Sims didn't practice last week.
"We miss Dion and we hope to get him back as soon as we can," Warner said. "He's been a big target for us and a go-to guy. Not having him around has been an issue so we'll see how soon he can get back."
Sims was Michigan State's leading receiver when he went down with an injury. Sims' 24 catches now ranks No. 2 on the team in that category, trailing sophomore Keith Mumphery, who has 25.
A Challenging Time For Leaders
Dantonio indicated on Tuesday that leadership has been good, despite the team's struggles. When asked on Thursday if he felt MSU was getting enough leadership, Warner said: "I think so. We always look for guys to step up more. Where we're at right now, it's not as easy to step up, when you go through the tough times."
Senior co-captain Chris Norman has been removed from the starting lineup, due in part to physical ailments and also an on-field slump.
Co-captain Andrew Maxwell is coming off a tough game against Iowa. Still coaches look to those captains, and others, to rally the team heading into Saturday's rivalry game.
"When things are going well and smoothly, it's easy to step out front and be a leader," Warner said. "When you struggle a little bit - and we are a 4-3 football team, I'm not saying we're a bad football team but we are not where we expected to be - sometimes it's a little bit harder for guys to step out in front.
"But we have some guys; our sideline is alive; the struggles we have had have not been because of the preparation, the effort, the energy and the enthusiasm."
The Cook Wrinkle
Redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Cook made a surprise appearance during Saturday's loss to Iowa. He was stuffed for a loss on a failed speed option play on third-and-four, deep in MSU territory in the first half.
"We were just trying to mix things up a little bit, get him on the field and see what he can do," said Warner, who wasn't necessarily the architect of the failed new wrinkle.
So what went wrong on the play?
"We had an option there and he mis-read it," Warner said. "He should have kept it to the outside. He kept it up inside and got a helmet stuck right in his chest."
Where's The Bubble?
MSU utilized the bubble screen quite frequently earlier in the season in a loss to Notre Dame. The play was also a staple for success with Keshawn Martin a year ago.
Iowa is known to play screens exceptionally well, and MSU didn't attempt one last weekend against the Hawkeyes.
But Warner acknowledged that getting the bubble screen back into the play rotation is something that has been discussed in meeting rooms.
"We talk about that," he said. "We certainly would like for that to take place. That falls under the category of work in progress.
"You look at some of the things we did last year with Keshawn and our other quality receivers and we haven't gotten that done this year, but we hope that that will happen, sooner rather than later."
BRIEFLY: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi revealed that MSU wide receiver Tony Lippett has worked with the Spartan scout team in portraying Michigan QB Denard Robinson in practice. Lippett is has been a starting WR for Michigan State this year, but he originally gained acclaim from the coaching staff for his portrayal of Robinson two years ago. Lippett is back on the scout field this week. "That's how important it is," Narduzzi said.