AP Sports Writer
---- — EAST LANSING (AP) — Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell is well aware of how many close calls his team was involved in last season.
The Spartans’ first seven Big Ten games were decided by four points or fewer, and since they lost five of them, it would be easy for this team to expect a rebound in 2013.
Maxwell, however, is taking nothing for granted.
“They really are inches — but those inches can become miles when you don’t find them,” Maxwell said. “There’s an old saying — they don’t ask how, they just ask how many. An inch here, an inch there — a loss is still a loss.”
Michigan State went 7-6 last season after falling just short of the Rose Bowl the previous two campaigns. The Spartans lost only three starters on offense and four on defense, and their schedule this season looks favorable. The hope in East Lansing is that 2012 was a mere blip for a program that has gained confidence in recent years under coach Mark Dantonio.
“Our expectations were higher, there’s no question about that,” Dantonio said Monday at media day. “I do think we had to take a step back, re-evaluate who we are, what inches we came up short on, and then transition back forward.”
Although there’s plenty of experience returning, the Spartans do have lingering questions. Running back Le’Veon Bell left school early to go to the NFL draft after a tireless junior season in which he carried the ball 382 times. Michigan State also lost tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston. They declared for the draft as well.
And the quarterback situation is a bit uncertain. Maxwell took most of the snaps last year, but he split time with Connor Cook in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It was Cook who led the winning drive against TCU in that game.
“It just kind of shows you that nothing’s really promised,” Maxwell said. “And it shows you that coach Dantonio and the coaches are going to put the best football team that they feel that they can put on that field.”
Maxwell didn’t have much experience last season when he took over for Kirk Cousins, who had moved on to the NFL. Dantonio says he’d like to avoid a situation like that in the future — that’s one of the reasons he wants more than one quarterback to be prepared to play.
Maxwell is a senior, but Cook is a sophomore.
“I didn’t like the way Andrew had to come in with no experience and perform,” Dantonio said. “We’re going to see how it all shakes out. Our players understand we’re going to do the very best we can to play the best player that gives us the best chance to win.”
Meanwhile, the task of replacing Bell could fall to redshirt freshman Riley Bullough or junior Nick Hill.
“I thrive off competition — I embrace it,” Hill said. “If you look at it, a lot of teams that have multiple backs do really well.”
The Spartans appear to have caught at least one break already. Their conference schedule doesn’t include Ohio State or Wisconsin. They split with those two teams last year.
In 2010, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin finished tied for first in the Big Ten, but the Spartans lost out on a Rose Bowl berth because of a tiebreaker. The following season, Wisconsin beat Michigan State in a thrilling conference title game.
Michigan State was able to stay in a lot of games last year because of Bell’s efforts and a defense that’s become one of the Big Ten’s best, year in and year out. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi returns this season with an additional title of assistant head coach.
Narduzzi hopes the Spartans won’t have quite as many nail-biters this year — as long as they’re on the right side of the score.
“I hope it’s not our style,” Narduzzi said. “I hope we score a lot of points, and I hope we hold people down and we beat people by 25.”