September 21, 2013 at 11:06 pm

John Niyo

Michigan State coaches deserve blame for this loss

South Bend, Ind. — If hindsight really is 50-50, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said — or started to say — after Saturday’s disturbing 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, at least that would explain what we all saw.

But it’s not, and it doesn’t. And if you’re looking for a poster child for the current confused state of Dantonio’s football program, look no further than the Spartans’ starting quarterback.

Connor Cook stood in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room early Saturday evening and couldn’t hide his disappointment. Not just over the loss to the Fighting Irish. But also the loss of confidence his coaches showed in the clutch, calling a ridiculous halfback pass that was intercepted late in the third quarter, then benching Cook in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell for the decisive two-minute drive at the end of the game.

Cook, a redshirt sophomore, was making his third career start — and his first on the road — before a crowd of 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium. But by the time it was over, he found himself back on the sideline, unsure where to stand and, by the sound of it, confused about where things stand. Which puts him in good company, I suppose, joining most of Michigan State’s fan base.

“I was a little disappointed,” said Cook, who’d thrown three straight incompletions on MSU’s previous drive that began with 4:06 to play. “I don’t know why they pulled me. I mean, they said I was a little inaccurate. But I would’ve wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that.”

Really now, that’s not asking too much, is it?

A few days after promising “good things will start to happen” for Cook now that he’d started getting comfortable, Dantonio and his two-headed monstrosity of an offensive coordinator decided to hit the pause button just before Saturday’s climactic scene.

Then again, this was something the head coach had promised us as well, saying of his deposed starter, Maxwell, earlier this week: “Something is going to happen where there’s going to be an opportunity for Andrew to make a statement.”

Quarterback roulette a bad bet

That it came so quickly, and so awkwardly, though, speaks to the larger problem with this ill-conceived offensive game plan. More often than not, quarterback roulette leaves a mess, as it did Saturday as Maxwell and the offense flailed their way to the finish.

That last two-minute drive went backward in a hurry, with three incompletions, two pre-snap penalties and one inexplicable fourth-down scramble by Maxwell — he’s the pocket passer, not the runner, remember? — as he came up a dozen yards short on fourth-and-20 to seal the loss.

But I’m sorry, that’s not Maxwell’s fault. And that loss isn’t on Cook. This is on the coaches, who’ve done nothing but send mixed messages — for weeks now, if not months — disguised in a simple demand to “score touchdowns.” That’s not a strategy. That’s sandlot stuff.

Pick a quarterback. Support him. Give him a real chance to succeed. And stick with him, whoever it is. If the coaches don’t trust Cook with a two-minute drill, Maxwell should be their starter. If they trust either to do the job, well, good luck, I guess.

Look, this was a street fight Saturday, minus most of the dangerous weapons, with the exception of Dave Witvoet’s comically bad Big Ten officiating crew.

But despite the understandable griping about penalty flags afterward — Dantonio said he’s “never” had a team hit with that many pass-interference calls in “30-plus years” of coaching — this was a game the Spartans could’ve won.

Probably should’ve won, frankly, considering Notre Dame couldn’t run the ball against MSU’s defense and picked up as many first downs via penalty (five) as they did passing the ball. Pat Narduzzi’s top-ranked unit held the Irish to just 224 total yards — the fewest in Brian Kelly’s three-plus seasons in South Bend.

And yet, as Dantonio pointed out, crunching the numbers again after the game, “Seventeen points aren’t gonna win you many games. Thirteen’s not, for sure.”

Surely, they can do better than this. Yet here the Spartans are, heading into their bye week before Big Ten play begins, still wondering who’s in charge of this offense.

It was quarterbacks coach Brad Salem who told Cook he was getting yanked just after he’d come off the field Saturday.

“It was frustrating,” Cook said, clearly trying not to say too much. “It’s not fun.”

It was Dantonio, apparently, who offered a pep talk in the postgame locker room.

“He said I’m still the No. 1 guy and stuff like that,” Cook said.

Yet, it’s stuff like this that suggests otherwise. Cook was 5-of-15 for 44 yards passing in the first half, matching his receivers’ drops with errant throws of his own under pressure. There was a nice 12-yard toss to Macgarrett Kings Jr. for the Spartans’ lone touchdown midway through the second quarter. But there were too many others that missed the mark, including a back-shoulder throw to Aaron Burbridge on third down inside the Irish 10 on the opening drive of the second half.

Halfback pass inexplicable

Still, the worst throw of the game didn’t belong to Cook or Maxwell. It belonged to freshman receiver R.J Shelton, which is to say it belonged to the coaches.

Because after starting the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game, and after beginning the next drive with runs of 5 and 11 yards for a first down, what’s the play call there?

Another handoff, maybe? A play-action pass? Nope.

How about a halfback pass instead? Yep.

Shelton took the handoff, rolled right and then launched a deep ball into double coverage that was easily intercepted. Five plays and three defensive penalties later, Notre Dame had the lead for good at 17-10.

“That’s my call,” Dantonio explained afterward. “I’ll take responsibility for that. But I felt like we needed a big play.”

Actually, that’s what Notre Dame needed there, and that’s what the Irish defense got.

“I think that changed momentum a lot, actually,” Cook said, before adding a startling admission: “We only really ran that once in practice.”

So in a tie game in the third quarter on the road, the plan is to have a true freshman running back — “He’s got a great arm on him,” Dantonio said — make that throw?

OK, then.

“I probably should’ve mentioned to R.J., ‘If it’s not there, run it,’ ” Cook said.

Probably so.

But, like his coach says, hindsight is 50-50.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio vents his frustration after a series of calls against his Spartans on Saturday against Notre Dame. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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