Henning: Window opens for Spartans to regroup

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio shake hands after the game.

East Lansing — The thought was six touchdowns.

Whether it went down as 42-0 or 56-14, it seemed, after seeing Michigan and Michigan State play on multiple Saturdays this season at Ann Arbor and at East Lansing, as if something lopsided was going to happen in Michigan’s favor when the two teams met Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

It instead was much closer, 32-23, which is one more reason why bookies will continue to make their livings off other folks.

It was a weird game, Saturday’s. Weather was warm and balmy for Oct. 29. Records were polarized (Michigan was 7-0, the Spartans 2-5). Fans didn’t quite know how to act ahead of kickoff, given that a 20-some-point spread in UM’s favor dulled the daggers two teams normally reserve for one another.

Then, the game: MSU up quickly. UM up soon thereafter. Michigan ahead at halftime, comfortably. Michigan State pulled close late, even if it seemed Michigan still owned Saturday’s tussle, which became final once Jabrill Peppers scooped up a free football on MSU’s two-point try and sealed matters with a long gallop worth two more UM points, all with one second on the clock.

Michigan: Still unbeaten, second-ranked in the land, and headed, almost certainly, for a firefight in four weeks at Columbus against Ohio State.

Michigan State: Six consecutive defeats (no misprint), all but barred from bowl game possibilities, and in the process of making 2016 one of the most bizarre seasons of football in modern Spartan annals, even on a campus that for generations has delivered its share of disbelief.

This wasn’t the massacre some of us envisioned. In fact, MSU managed a few pluses Saturday, such as running the football, which hadn’t been expected. Not from a team that two weeks earlier had gained all of 51 yards rushing against Northwestern.

Rapid descent

Still, it is one of the stranger phenomena this sports region has experienced, this tumble by Michigan State from a team that for consecutive seasons had double-digit victories and now looks as if it might finish in the vicinity of 4-8.

Mark Dantonio stepped into the postgame press briefing Saturday and was fine. Fine, in the sense that he seemed, several weeks ago if not much sooner, to accept that this year could become a Hindenburg. He has been straightforward, not averse to an appropriate quip, and consistent with thoughts his team will get better.

But that hasn’t been happening. Not sufficiently to win a football game since September.

And that, of course, is on Dantonio. It’s his program. He got all the credit, properly, when things for so very long were going right.

Now he has teenagers playing everywhere, a defensive front that has been largely a mess, an offensive line that is just beginning to resemble competency, not to mention issues at quarterback and pretty much anywhere else you care to focus.

“I want inches, I want toughness,” he said Saturday, explaining why he ran the ball, on four consecutive downs, from the 3-yard line.

Didn’t work. Michigan State was stuffed. And this is supposed to be Spartans football?

That was Dantonio’s point, of course, in bleak testimony to his team’s shortcomings.

You can see, already, that the mission to redeem 2016, to make things right again in East Lansing, has been all but launched.

Reload and refocus

Dantonio is reduced to basics. He is trying to rebuild a running game. And he clearly is trying, even now, to ready a new quarterback for 2017, which is why he insisted Saturday on deploying at different times Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke after Tyler O’Connor had been given the second-half hook.

“I thought it was important for them to experience this football game,” Dantonio said. “I wanted the other two quarterbacks to have game experience in this football game.”

Henning: Michigan triumph confirms changing tide in rivalry

The problem in pondering, even for a moment, next year is that so much of this season remains. Think about it. November, December, and January, have been the celebration months for Michigan State football since Dantonio’s program got its wheels following a half-dozen years of painful reconstruction.

Now, it’s as if 2016’s events are from a decade ago. November is destined to be a sunset stretch for the Spartans. Worse, there is no bowl trip. Not realistically, anyway. There is no chance to practice in December. No top-25 ranking. No steam heading into another recruiting year.

It’s hard to fathom. Hard to explain.

It seemed, as Dantonio dissected some of Saturday’s absurdities, and maybe as much to him as to others, that he was talking about a different team. A different school. A different football realm.

“We’ve got to make ‘em punt in the first half,” he said, “and didn’t.”

There were zero fourth-down punts from Michigan’s offense. The Spartans’ defense, a team’s trademark, was so soft Michigan punter Kenny Allen might as well have spent two quarters on a stationary bike.

Nothing is going MSU’s way in 2016. As for 2017, the year Michigan State, unofficially, is preparing for?

Next season for the Spartans begins with a bye week.

If you can define the difference between disastrous and tragicomic, a coach in East Lansing awaits your call.