Plenty of blame to go around for MSU's terrible season
East Lansing — As Mark Dantonio was busy building Michigan State into a Big Ten champion and a national contender over his first nine seasons as head coach, there was one key reason for the Spartans’ success — chemistry.
Sure, it helped to have good players and a few timely breaks never hurt, but as Michigan State was in the process of winning 11 or more games five times in a six-year span, it all came down to how the team came together each and every week.
It’s easy to maintain that when things are going well, but when it starts to go south, when the losses start piling up, that’s when the chemistry of an entire program can be tested. And that’s exactly where Michigan State finds itself after its 28-17 loss to Maryland on Saturday, the fifth straight this season that has left the Spartans 0-4 in the Big Ten heading into this week’s matchup with No. 2 Michigan.
“No question it’s challenging,” Dantonio said during his weekly teleconference on Sunday night. “I don’t think there’s any question. But again, if we all take responsibility the chemistry stays. I think we’re trying to do that. We don’t point the finger at too many people or that type of thing, whether internally from player to player or coaches to players or coaches to coaches. I’ll share in the responsibility, and that’s a part of this.
“I think our chemistry is good. I think we need to play with more confidence, we need to play with greater technique and maybe had some things structurally that we could have done to help ourselves as well. But there’s no question that when things like this happen, you have a tendency to go back and question yourself and question things. That’s human nature.”
There have been plenty of chances over the past five weeks for Michigan State to start pointing fingers. However, it would have been tough to narrow things down.
Widespread issues have led to the Spartans losing a lead in all five losses. There’s been poor decision-making at quarterback, shoddy offensive line play, dropped passes, missed tackles, blown assignments, no pass rush and special teams blunders.
“This is a team game and everyone has to contribute, everyone has to do their job,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “I believe in everyone and I don’t care if we’re 0-8. I still believe in this team and know what we have and guys just have to bring that out of themselves to help this team win, and when we do that we are unstoppable.”
Evidence of that unstoppable play has been rare this season and as Dantonio said on Sunday, it has come in spurts. The running game came back to life against the Terrapins as the Spartans picked up 270 yards on the ground and sophomore LJ Scott gained a season-high 128 yards and scored a touchdown.
But the Spartans are also trying to bring along plenty of young players, some because they’ve simply played better and others because of injury. On defense alone, Michigan State is playing six true freshmen on a regular basis and for most of the second half on Saturday the base secondary included two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman.
Up front, freshman Mike Panasiuk is playing regularly at tackle while freshmen Josh King and Auston Robertson saw extensive action at defensive end. And when middle linebacker Riley Bullough was ejected for targeting in the first quarter, freshman Joe Bachie burned his redshirt and took over.
Over on offense, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke started his second game at quarterback. His top receiving target is freshman Donnie Corley. Up front, redshirt freshman Tyler Higby started his third consecutive game at left guard while freshman Thiyo Lukusa played most of the second half at right tackle.
But with just five games left and the odds of reaching a bowl game dwindling, getting those players ready becomes even more difficult.
“We had some guys (Saturday) who burned their redshirt and I think they realized that they need to get in the film room and really study the team that we’re playing because even if you study the film, they’re going to come out and do different stuff,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “So you have to prepare yourself for that.”
What’s next will not be simple as unbeaten Michigan comes to town with eight years of frustration built up. But if Michigan State has any chance to keep its run against the Wolverines going and saving its season, that old chemistry will be key.
“I feel for our players, extremely disappointed for our players,” Dantonio said. “I feel for them because of the effort, because of the relationships we have with our players and that they have with each other, and the goals that they aspire to. So, very disappointed for them.
“We need to stay together, and we need to understand that we lost the football game, not one specific person, we lost the football game. If we can at least all accept responsibility in that, then I think we all move forward.”