Cent. Michigan-Michigan St. Preview
There weren't a ton of question marks heading into the season for a Michigan State team that expected to contend for the national title, but perhaps the biggest one was whether anyone could replace Tony Lippett as Connor Cook's big-play target.
Three games in, Aaron Burbridge has provided a pretty definitive answer.
Coming off a three-touchdown performance and yet another 100-yard game, Burbridge looks to help the second-ranked Spartans stay focused in their final non-conference tuneup Saturday against visiting Central Michigan.
Burbridge's 29 catches, 364 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman were the best numbers he put up in his first three seasons in East Lansing, but with Lippett now in the NFL the opportunity to be Cook's top receiving threat was once again open.
It didn't take long for Burbridge to seize that role. After combining for 12 catches and a touchdown in his first two games, Burbridge caught eight passes for 156 yards and three scores in Michigan State's 35-21 win over Air Force last Saturday.
''He's awesome,'' Cook said. ''I really don't think it's any surprise to anyone. Back when I was a redshirt freshman and (Burbridge) was a true freshman, I was running with the twos and so was he, and there were times when he would just make amazing catches, making me look good, making circus catches.''
It's still early, but if Burbridge can continue this pace over the course of the 12-game regular season he'll surpass three school records - receptions (79, by B.J. Cunningham in 2011 and Devin Thomas in 2007), yards (1,470, by Charles Rogers in 2001) and touchdowns (14, by Rogers that same year). And that's before getting into a potential Big Ten championship game or what the Spartans (3-0) hope will be two College Football Playoff contests.
''He's just had the ball thrown to him a little bit more, but he's had outstanding ability from day one,'' coach Mark Dantonio said after Michigan State extended its streak of scoring 30 points to 11 games - the longest active run in FBS. ''Great hands, great vision, great body control, good run after catch, great speed.''
Burbridge's breakout day helped mask some issues running the ball. Michigan State averaged just 1.8 yards on 42 carries against the Falcons, its worst performance on the ground against an unranked opponent since 2011.
"We have good running backs and a good offensive line, but it takes a lot of different pieces," Dantonio said. "Fullbacks, tight ends, play selections, structures. It takes a lot of different pieces to be able to run the football. So we'll try to get that all in order and every week's a test."
Central Michigan coach John Bonamego probably doesn't want to hear any complaints from the Spartans about a running game that's 96th in the nation at 3.9 yards per carry. That's because the Chippewas (1-2) are dead last in the FBS at 2.4 yards a pop, and have failed to run for more than 90 yards in a game thus far.
Cooper Rush threw for 430 yards, Central Michigan outgained Syracuse 520-326 and had 30 first downs to the Orange's 11 last Saturday, but Bonamego's team fell 30-27 in overtime. The junior quarterback's numbers alone, though, are enough to make Dantonio nervous.
"He's getting 70 percent of his passes, he's thrown for nearly a thousand yards in three games," he said. "They get the ball to (their tight end), they get the ball to the backs, screen, things of that nature, and he'll go up top as well.
"I've been impressed with what they've been able to do. They had opportunities to win all three games."
Michigan State has won 15 straight non-conference home games against unranked opponents, though the last team to break that trend was the Chippewas with a 29-27 victory in East Lansing in 2009. The Spartans have won two meetings since, in 2011 and 2012, by a combined 86-14.
Those Michigan State teams both went on to win bowl games, but this one has much loftier goals - and with a win over Oregon, a plus-five turnover margin and only 11 penalties through three games, Bonamego can see a case for Dantonio's current team doing even more around the holidays.
"You don't see them committing a lot of penalties you don't see them turning the ball over," said the first-year head coach, who finished radiation treatments for tonsil cancer last month and is recovering well. "They're the real deal.
"They're ranked No. 2 because they deserve it. They earned it. I personally believe they've been playing consistent enough to say there's an argument that they're No. 1."