Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews the Spartans' game against Tulsa on Friday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio has to hate being in this spot, talking about a rebound, not talking about an offense tightly wrapped in camouflage, like a secret test car.
Dantonio also has to love being in this spot, letting others do most of the talking. It’s the classic Michigan State setup, on the fringes of college football’s radar, ranked 18th, picked third or fourth in its division, answering questions about last year’s 7-6 record.
The easy thing to say is, this is when the Spartans are most dangerous, and there are several prime examples: From 6-7 in 2009 to 11-2 in 2010; from 7-6 in 2012 to 13-1 in 2013; from 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017. They have a stacked defense with seven senior starters who freely talk about being the most dominant in the country. They have the history and perhaps a bit of the swagger back. But quite literally, we don’t know if they have an offense.
This is a fascinating juncture for Dantonio, with enough pieces to be a legitimate factor again, and enough puzzles to make it far from a guarantee. The Spartans may never have a defense this experienced, with eight starters returning to a unit that ranked No. 1 against the run. They may never have an offense this unknown, with senior Brian Lewerke trying to show last season’s collapse was injury-induced, and his sophomore numbers — 2,793 yards passing, 559 rushing — are more indicative of who he is.
Dantonio’s legacy isn’t on the line, no matter how much longer he coaches. With three more victories, he’ll pass Duffy Daugherty as the school’s all-time winningest football coach, and his spot in program lore is sealed.
But entering his 13th season, Dantonio, 63, may not get many more chances like this. Perhaps that’s why he dug in, putting his principles on the line, starting with loyalty and continuity. Amid cries for change after his offense finished 116th in the nation and scored 32 points in the final four games combined, he kept his staff intact. He shuffled duties and named quarterbacks coach Brad Salem the offensive coordinator, and there were some signs of urgency: The offensive assistants’ contracts were reduced from two-year to one-year rolling deals.
Ask him about his offense and Dantonio says slyly, “It will be a question.” Asked again Tuesday, he said, “Won’t talk about scheme.”
Are the Spartans hiding something? Well sure, everybody is trying to hide something before the season begins. Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery, who brings his team in for Friday night’s opener, admits it’s difficult to prepare with so few clues about Michigan State’s scheme.
Pick your cliché. Laying in the weeds. Flying under the radar. Dark horse. Green sleeper.
The Spartans generally love the labels, although it’s hard to tell if they genuinely love repeating the labels.
“I’ve been very impressed with our football team, have for the last nine months,” Dantonio said as camp closed. “I’ve been very excited. I told our football team, I don’t think I’ve ever had a camp, certainly since I’ve been a head coach — and not to disrespect anybody else — where our players are built into each other. There’s a great feeling in that respect and I think you go places with that.”
Partly because Dantonio is zeroing in on Daugherty’s record, he’s waxed a little nostalgic lately. He was 87-33 his first nine seasons and is 20-18 in his last three. The former far overshadows the latter, but there’s a trend he desperately wants to stop.
When asked about becoming the school’s victories leader, he defers to all the people and players who helped build the program.
“I've been blessed to be here,” Dantonio said. “I've been humbled to be here, and there's been a lot of great players here and a lot of great moments here. That's really why we've sort of adopted “Chase the Moments,” because we've had some great moments. We want those again.”
Mile markers are brought up often. Dantonio noted the 2016 class, now seniors, will try to avoid becoming the first not to get a championship ring, after Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015. He talked about finishing off the decade in a prominent way, and again, there’s a sense it’s an emotional crossroad for him.
The defense is loaded, led by captains Joe Bachie, Raequan Williams and Kenny Willekes, and there are potential shutdown corners in Josiah Scott and Josh Butler. This isn’t a last chance for everyone, but it is for the bulk of a defense that will have to be rebuilt next season.
The offense is the great unknown, and Dantonio hasn’t pulled the curtain back at all. It’s Lewerke’s last run too, and the Spartans hope his confidence is as healed as his shoulder. Cody White and Darrell Stewart comprise a fine receiver tandem, but there isn’t a true No. 1 back, with Connor Heyward getting first shot.
The issues on offense were blatant and bountiful last season, and injuries played a big part. Already, injuries could be a factor, with left tackle Cole Chewins battling a back problem and out for the opener. The offensive line must be vastly improved or it won’t matter what Salem calls. Everyone expects quicker tempo and a mix of RPOs (run-pass options) to replace some of the stodginess, but an immediate, notable difference? We’ll see.
What has made an overlooked Michigan State dangerous in the past is a breakout quarterback, such as Connor Cook, and a break-it-down defense. They likely have half that formula again.
“We always want to be the No. 1 defense in the nation,” Williams said. “What do we do best? I feel like we pursue. It’s not like that everywhere else. When the ball is going to the outside, everybody’s running, even the nose tackles, the defensive tackles, the defensive ends, the safeties, everybody.”
The Spartans are in full pursuit again, chasing after something, chasing away something. They’ve done it before, which doesn’t necessarily mean they can do it again. But under Dantonio, they have a shot, always.