Michigan State offense lost in a fog with no clear answers
Josiah Scott had a simple answer Monday afternoon when he was asked about how soon he would start thinking about next season.
“Next year starts today,” the sophomore cornerback said.
In the wake of Michigan State’s 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl, which capped off an equally unimpressive 7-6 season, it seemed like the most straightforward response. However, getting the Spartans’ turned around might be a bit more complex than simply an early start on 2019.
For a program that found itself among the nation’s elite from 2013-15, the last three seasons have been full of inconsistencies that are the hallmarks of an average program. From the tumble to 3-9 in 2016, a season after reaching the College Football Playoff, to 10 wins last season to the offensive misery of 2018, Michigan State is a program that is lost in the fog offensively.
What makes the paltry numbers on that side of the ball even tougher to stomach is the fact the Spartans might have the best defense since Mark Dantonio took over as coach in 2007, and that’s saying something considering some of the defenses that have come through East Lansing in the last decade-plus.
While the offense averaged less than 20 points a game and was among the worst in the nation in total yards, the defense was among the best. The Spartans finished the season as the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation while finishing in the top 15 in total defense.
“I guess when you at this team, what I get from the season is we played extremely hard and competed in every single game,” Dantonio said. “Every one of them. “We have great chemistry. … I’m proud of our football team, proud of our chemistry and proud of the way we handled themselves. That’s my takeaway from the season.
“It’s still a 7-6 season and some people celebrate that. We’re not at that point right now in terms of what we’ve accomplished in the past. So, 7-6 is a bit of a downer. We'll rise back up.”
To rise back up, however, will take some significant improvements, almost solely on the offensive side of the ball.
After failing to score a touchdown in two of the last three games in the regular season, Dantonio took a larger role in offensive game-planning for the matchup with Oregon on the Redbox Bowl. That led to the Spartans almost exclusively running a no-huddle attack with some tweaks to formation and play-calling.
However, despite some better yardage numbers, the result was the same as Michigan State reached the red zone just three times, coming away with two field goals while failing to convert on fourth-and-1 the third time.
The biggest question is whether Michigan State’s problems are because of poor coaching.
“Football is a game of execution,” Dantonio said. “It’s a team game. You depend on 11 players playing well at once and it’s about repetition. If a guy comes up with a catch does that mean it was a great play or a great catch? If a guy drops the ball is that a bad call or a bad play?”
It’s clear where much of the fanbase stands on the issue – there needs to be a change on the coaching staff. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner has drawn most of the heat, but it seems few on offense have avoided criticism.
Dantonio has never been one to make drastic changes to his staff and didn’t say one way or another on Monday. However, he didn’t sound like it was out of the question, either.
“I don’t think you make those decisions right now,” Dantonio said. “I’ve always stayed the course. I’ve worked with people and people work with us. I have value in our players and in our coaches and that’s how I’ve always done things.
“That’s tough to answer right now.”
Those answers will come in due time, likely in the next couple of weeks. For the players, a difficult offseason is next. On offense, they know they need to make significant strides, whether the coaching staff changes or not.
For Brian Lewerke it means playing like he did as a sophomore in 2017 when he gained more than 3,300 yards.
“Offensively, it’s picking up the slack,” Lewerke said. “Whatever needs to happen, whatever needs to change, we have to make sure we get it done.”
Added sophomore wide receiver Cody White, “It’s gonna be a grind. We’ve got to get stronger, we’ve got to get faster. That’s for everyone on this team. We’ve got to keep getting better and we know we have a lot of things to work on.”
The Spartans have been in this position before – entering an offseason upset about what just transpired, convinced they need to do whatever it takes to get things turned around.
The last time, of course, was after the 2016 season when Michigan State won just three games. They responded with 10 victories in 2017. A similar response is the goal now.
“That was my first season coming here after the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, College Football Playoff,” Bachie said. “I get here as a freshman and think we’re gonna get there and, boom, 3-9. We go through an offseason that, quite honestly, was hell. It was terrible, but it brought us together and we get a 10-win season.
“We had everything aligned the right way going into the season then the injuries hit us a bit. But we’ll attack things the same way whether we’re 3-9 or 12-0. Quite frankly, 7-6 is not good enough. It’s not the standard here. We’ll get things fixed in the offseason, we’ll heal up a bit and be ready to go.”