EAST LANSING, Mich. Consider this: Michigan State junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell had not taken a snap as a starting quarterback in nearly four years until Friday nights 17-13 win over Boise State. Thats a long time to be wearing a baseball cap and headphones on the sideline during games.
So, how did he grade out as the first-time leader of a college offense?
I would give him a C on the report card.
Maxwells statistics were not impressive. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 248 yards with no touchdowns and three costly interceptions. But only one of those pickoffs was really his fault.
The first interception by Broncos cornerback Jamar Taylor, which set up a field goal, inexplicably went right through the hands of starting receiver Tony Lippett.
Boise State end Sam Ukwuachu was in Maxwells face when he fired a pass tipped by tailback Larry Caper into the hands of safety Jeremy Ioane, who tied the score at 10-10 with a 43-yard touchdown return.
The worst interception came on the final drive of the first half. Maxwell had Bennie Fowler wide open for a touchdown down the middle of the field, but Maxwell threw behind Fowler for an easy pick in the end zone by safety Lee Hightower for a touchback.
In the first half, Maxwell completed 11 of 22 passes for 96 yards and three interceptions.
Not exactly how you dream the first half will go, Maxwell said, but you have to play for the next play. Mistakes are going to happen; those are growing pains. Its a game of inches either way, and those plays can be completely different. Theres a character to our team to bring me back from those mistakes and just keep battling, sustain drives when we needed, and happened to get the win.
Fans might have been wondering if Maxwell was the best choice to replace career passing yardage leader Kirk Cousins at half time. More than a few probably said, Hey, bring in Connor Cook. The redshirt freshman who has plenty of talent.
But the Spartans coaches and players knew what they had in Maxwell. They stuck with him, and LeVeon Bell rushed for 210 yards to take the pressure off Maxwell. He responded by completing 11 of 16 for 152 yards with nary a pick in the second half.
I just kept telling him to play, said State coach Mark Dantonio. Theres going to be a learning curve here. He had one ball tipped for an interception, another one dropped, and he threw one poor ball. I thought he threw the ball pretty well, though, for his first time out.
When asked what he told Maxwell at half time, Spartans offensive coordinator Dan Roushar opted to share what he told the entire offense. Execution was killing us, he said, but we were controlling the football. I reminded the guys to maintain poise and execute the fundamentals.
And where Maxwell was concerned, tight end Dion Sims noted: He did a great job of staying poised.
Maxwell had not started a game since late in the fall of 2008, when he lost in the state regional finals with Midland High.
It was a special experience, Maxwell said of Friday nights start. Its funny because before the game I was as calm as Ive ever been before a football game. And I think thats a testament to our preparation as a team, and all the work that weve put in through the offseason and through training camp and through this week. Starting off with the drive we did, we marched it right down the field and that was a great way to start and get us off on the right foot.
Maxwells three best drives were the first and the last two, and those were the most critical possessions of the game.
He was four-for-four on passing attempts on the 12-play, 60-yard drive to start the game. Bell went the final yard for the touchdown. That showed what the offense, which also lost its top four receivers from last season, was capable of accomplishing.
However, State did not score another touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter. Maxwell was part of the problem, but not all of it.
With the game on the line, though, and the Spartans trailing, 13-10, Maxwell was a big part of the triumph. He completed all five of his passes on those two drives including three on third-down plays that kept the chains moving.
Maxwells biggest throw was an 18-yarder on third-and-six that Sims went up and grabbed along the sideline. That put the ball on the Boise State seven-yard line, and two plays later Bell bulled in for the go-ahead touchdown that closed out the scoring.
Going into the fourth quarter, Dantonio said, we needed the last to two drives to get the win and we got them. And thats what impressed me. Guys grew up a little bit.
And none grew up more than Maxwell.
Four years is a long time to go between starts, and hed attempted only 51 passes as a reserve since then. But he maintained poise, sustained drives and realized victory.
Maxwell stepped up and the Spartans stepped out in style.