Henning: Smooth QB succession par for course at MSU

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Quarterback Tyler O'Connor throws before MSU hosts Furman Friday.

East Lansing —  As this is written, it’s 75 minutes until kickoff at Spartan Stadium and Michigan State’s college football is supposedly a few clock ticks away.

But this is a Friday night opener for the Spartans, against Furman, and typical football rhythms are jumbled.

Tailgaters were partying as a gorgeous September day began to wane, but not as densely as typically would be the case for a Saturday game. The only fans seated early were green-and-white clad students — the equivalent of basketball’s Izzone — who have settled into the southeast corner.

The press box’s public-address system is seemingly being tested, too loudly, which would perhaps explain why alternating snippets of Ozzy Osbourne songs and interviews with unnamed MSU athletes are blaring incoherently.

So, it will get better.

At least once Mark Dantonio’s team hits the field.

There is the summer/autumn constant in East Lansing: a football team that Dantonio has bolted together with such muscle and excess parts he can win 10 or 11 or more games a season and expect to do something similar the very next year.

And if one player, or more accurately one position, embodies Dantonio’s skill at sustaining good times for the Spartans it is at quarterback.

Gone but not forgotten

This theoretically should be an unsettled time for Dantonio’s bunch. Connor Cook is gone. He was, almost any way you care to slice it, the best quarterback in MSU history. In terms of what he and his teams accomplished, as far as his raw skill, and certainly in his flair for being the QB whose teams won so regularly and in such quantity.

Lose a quarterback of his elevation after three years as a prime-time gunslinger and most teams would be nervous about adjustments and potential falloffs until the new guy gets comfortable.

That is, if he has talent sufficient to make him, his coach, and a team comfortable.

Tyler O’Connor is the anti-anxiety quarterback. He has an amazing amount of experience, given that he was sitting in the second chair during Cook’s run. And he has talent.

He can throw a Big Ten-grade pass. He can run a bit. And he already has started and won big games, none bigger than when he so coolly steered the Spartans to a thumping of Ohio State last November at Columbus.

If you care to talk about soft spots on Dantonio’s team in 2016, and they are few, quarterback rarely is mentioned.

That’s how reassuring is a senior of O’Connor’s skill set and football intellect.

But even more fundamentally, this absence of mystery, this thorough preparedness O’Connor brought Friday night to Spartan Stadium, was a clear manifestation of — this word means everything — the program Dantonio has personally crafted in East Lansing.

No rebuilding, only reloading

He can withstand graduation losses, he can even lose talent early to the NFL as figures to be the case next spring with Malik McDowell, but Dantonio’s teams are self-sustaining. He recruits good classes. He keeps them in school and on the team.

And then he and his staff coach them pretty much to their optimum capability.

That’s how you compete regularly for championships and avoid the ups and downs most programs can’t seem to avoid, as so often was the case at MSU before Dantonio arrived a decade ago.

There was no expectation as shadows began to spill across Spartan Stadium’s turf and the stands filled that O’Connor, or Dantonio’s team, would put together Friday night anything close to an immaculate football game.

The game doesn’t allow for great efficiency in these season openers. Not with kids playing.

But consider what was sure to be on display Friday.

A good football team. With very good prospects for getting steadily better in 2016, no matter that a bye week and a potentially troublesome trip to Notre Dame were on the menu in Michigan State’s next two weeks.

Dantonio knew ahead of Friday night’s game what we all knew. Michigan State was likely to win. And just as likely, a new starting quarterback was a strong percentage bet to debut smartly and reassuringly.

Good program, Mr. Dantonio. Very good football program.