MOUNT PLEASANT - How comfortable are Andrew Maxwell and Bennie Fowler becoming as a QB-WR connection?
Comfortable enough that when Fowler was walking past Maxwell as the quarterback was surrounded by more than a dozen reporters following Saturday's victory over Central Michigan, Fowler yelled out in jest: "Maxwell, give your boy a shout out!"
"I already did!," Maxwell yelled back at a smiling Fowler.
This is becoming their time now. They're starting. They're starring. They're making plays, and having fun. And they're quick to give each other credit, or "shout outs", during post-game interviews.
A junior wide out and a junior quarterback, they are two players who met for the first time at a Michigan State camp in the summer of 2008 when Maxwell was a verbally-committed prep star and Fowler was an unknown pass catcher working hard in hopes of getting a scholarship offer. They began clicking that day. They clicked two years later in the spring of their freshman year, and again in practice as second-stringers in the fall of 2010.
Fowler's development was delayed last year by a foot injury which prevented MSU's well-decorated 3-WR show from being a 4-WR ensemble.
But Fowler has been healthy, fast and dangerous thus far in the young 2012 season, and Saturday's 41-7 victory at Central Michigan offered Maxwell and Fowler their first real chance to hook up repeatedly, when it counted, on a gameday in the fall.
Fowler (6-1, 218, Jr., Bloomfield, Mich./Detroit Country Day) led all Spartan pass catchers with a career-high eight receptions for 99 yards.
"Bennie did a great job," Maxwell said. "He had a great game. He ran great routes."
Maxwell and Fowler connected with a 37-yard deep strike, setting up a field goal just before the half. And then they combined for a 7-yard TD to blow it up open at 31-0 early in the third quarter.
Both were examples of a growing understanding between the two.
Inside The Play
On the 37-yarder, one snap after a Johnny Adams interception, MSU sought to go deep and take advantage of a sudden change situation.
CMU had surprised MSU by the frequency of their blitzes in the first half. If MSU wanted to go deep, it was prudent to provide maximum protection.
During the deep go route to Fowler, Central Michigan brought six pass rushers. MSU guessed right by protecting with seven, keeping RB Le'Veon Bell and TE Dion Sims in to pass block.
The protection was good enough. Dan France did a good job of communicating to Bell that France had the wide linebacker blitz threat. When that LB came, France headed him off with no problem. This gave Bell freedom to survey the scene and look to provide help.
Help was needed on the right side as Chris McDonald failed to pick up his man. Bell, as the extra blocker, covered for McDonald and Maxwell had time to take a step and throw deep.
CMU's cornerback, Lorenzo White Jr. was in off coverage, making it harder for Fowler to jet past him for a long TD strike. The speedy Fowler began to get a step on White after a brief hesitation move. It looked like Fowler might sprint past him and get on top with separation, but Maxwell didn't have time to wait, due to the blitz.
Maxwell made the read and capitalized on the spacing of the pass pattern. Fowler ran the route along the numbers on the field. That left some room between Fowler and the sideline. Maxwell utilized that room by throwing to Fowler's back shoulder, to an area where only Fowler could catch it.
The back shoulder throw can result in an ugly incompletion if the WR and the QB aren't on the same page. But Maxwell trusts that Fowler will see things the way he sees them, and at the same moment.
"We got into a great rhythm today," Fowler said. "We completed a lot more passes than we did against Boise. Everything we worked on in practice this week showed today, so we continue to get better."
Fowler and Maxwell were at their collective, intuitive best on consecutive completions during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. On second-and-15, Maxwell hit Fowler on a hot route against a blitz. When Fowler looked back for the ball, it was already in the air. Same page. On time. Eight yards.
Next snap, Fowler had a free release as a slot man. He ran a short out route. Maxwell made one read, zipped it to Fowler. Again, there was no wasted time. The ball was in the air as Fowler came out of his break. Gain of 12. First down.
"Bennie ran great routes and we were on time," Maxwell said. "That's the chemistry we have been building for a couple of years now and to come out here and have that kind of success on the field felt good."
Learning From A Mistake
Fowler and Maxwell were not perfect. One snap after the 37-yarder, Fowler came wide open at the goal line on a slant. Maxwell gunned a hot (blitz reaction) throw to Fowler. The pass bounded through Fowler's hands for an incompletion. Michigan State settled for a field goal on that drive.
They learned from the error. Maxwell said he has to throw a little more gently in a situation like that. Fowler said he needs to catch it no matter what.
Fowler got open by burning the slot-area DB by faking an out cut. Fowler has the foot quickness and technical skill to turn it outside-in in an instant.
CMU had no safety help in the back on this play, bringing another cover-zero blitz. That's why Fowler was all alone.
"He was too open, maybe," Maxwell said after the game, half-joking.
Maxwell has had a handful of incompletions (and an interception against Boise State) that can possibly be chalked up to putting a little too much heat on the ball when lukewarm would do.
"That one was a perfect example," Maxwell said of the incompletion to Fowler at the goal line. "He's wide open and maybe you don't have to gun it in there. My high school coach used to call it a b.p. (batting practice) fastball. But that's something that you learn from, that's good experience to take from it and hopefully we won't make the same mistake again."
Fowler wanted all of the blame.
"I just wasn't ready to catch it but it was a great read by Max," Fowler said.
Central Michigan gave Fowler and Maxwell a chance for a re-do on the first drive of the second half.
Fowler smelled another CMU blitz as he came to the line of scrimmage on second-and-5 at the 7-yard line. Fowler looked at the defender across from him and tugged his facemask. Maxwell was looking right at Fowler when he did it.
Was this a signal? A subtle way for Fowler to tell Maxwell that a blitz was likely coming?
We'll never know. They won't say.
But they were each thinking the exact same thing at the exact same time as the DB left Fowler to blitz when the ball was snapped. Fowler sprinted three steps, and turned to see the ball being released, right at him. It was a one-read sight adjustment for Maxwell, who seemed to fully anticipate the blitz and Fowler's reaction to it.
CMU made it easier by failing to rotate a safety over to cover for the blitzing cornerback.
It was another wide open opportunity, and this time Maxwell sent a fat batting practice fastball, and Fowler inhaled it.
The Maxwell-Fowler relationship and connection is one touchdown richer, heading to week three against Notre Dame.
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