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After sad performance, Michigan State laments that it 'used to play like Wisconsin'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

There was a team on Saturday afternoon in Madison that played physical, controlled the line of scrimmage, limited its mistakes and thoroughly dominated its opponent.

It’s the way Michigan State has always wanted to play, and for the most part over Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the Spartans’ head coach, it has done so. This time, though, it was the Spartans that were looking across the field watching their opponent do all the things they used to.

Wisconsin wide receiver A.J. Taylor  makes a reception against Michigan State safety David Dowell (6) and cornerback Tre Person (24) during the first half.

Control the clock. Win up front. Grind an opponent into the ground to the point that opponent was looking around wondering what happened.

Wisconsin was all of that in a 38-0 beatdown of Michigan State and when it was over, Dantonio admitted he saw a little bit of what the Spartans used to be in the Badgers.

“You look at it and you say, ‘How did we used to play?’” Dantonio said. “We used to play like Wisconsin, to some degree.”

The harsh reality is that Michigan State (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) hasn’t played like that in what seems like a long time. Ever since reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015, things have been trending in the wrong direction.

The Spartans went 3-9 in 2016 but rebounded to 10-3 in 2017, igniting some hope and optimism that the miserable stretch following the playoffs would be short-lived and they’d again be competing for championships. However, a 7-6 mark in 2018 was highlighted by one of the more miserable offensive seasons in Michigan State history, prompting Dantonio to make minor changes, simply reshuffling his offensive coaching staff.

That move has inspired no one as Michigan State, fresh off two straight blowout defeats at the hands of the Big Ten’s best, is once again staring at a mediocre season, one that almost certainly will fall well short of the program’s goals.

“Very frustrating,” Dantonio said simply after the Wisconsin loss.

The offensive numbers are ugly and the defense is starting to fall into a similar hole. By late in the Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium, it was clear the players on the field knew there was no hope, there would be no miraculous comeback.

“We gotta wake up,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle and captain Raequan Williams. “We came out and we were playing slow off the go, as a defense and an offense. We have to do something. That’s my mindset when it happened. Somebody’s gotta make a play, somebody’s gotta change the game, and nobody did.”

Nobody did on Saturday. Nobody has for a while.

“You’ve just got to pick yourself up,” Williams said. “Confidence is low right now. Everybody is probably questioning themselves. But we’ve got a bye week this week and we have to get our swagger back.”

That’s probably easier said than done.

Michigan State isn’t dealing with a fractured locker room like it was in 2016, so that is one positive as the Spartans head into the off-week. However, it’s also clear the Spartans don’t measure up in the talent department.

Dantonio admitted that on Saturday evening, saying, “We’re not there yet.”

It’s hard to predict that Michigan State will be there anytime soon. Recruiting has fallen off as the 2020 class is hovering around No. 50 in the overall rankings. If that doesn’t change it would be, by far, the lowest-ranked class Dantonio has ever signed. And the vaunted defense that suddenly looks ordinary? It’s losing almost its entire starting front seven, including two starters in the back end.

And with an offense still unable to find its way, the forecast is gloomy, and it has nothing to do with whether Dantonio returns for his 14th season. That’s an entirely different story that might not be clear until after the new year.

“I think everybody who’s ever played the game of football has been in a situation like this at one point or another,” Dantonio said. “They collects themselves and take a step back, evaluate the situation and take a step forward.”

Michigan State has a week to do that. The Spartans will watch film on Monday then get away for a few days, not hitting the practice field again until Thursday.

They hope to return refreshed, ready to scrape together a response to a hefty dose of adversity.

“As a team we have to come together,” said senior linebacker and captain Joe Bachie. “We’ve got to be a family. We know that it’s a great week for a bye week. You know, a great week for a bye week.

“We’re 4-3 right now, a tough situation. Our leaders are gonna lead now, get our minds fresh.”

Before the season began, Dantonio lamented that Michigan State would have two byes in three weeks. Today, he’s likely feeling grateful for the break.

It might not be fair to judge Michigan State simply by the way it responds in two weeks. But after what’s gone down the last two, it’s clear the Spartans are a long way from being the team they had become accustomed to showing, much like the one they saw across the field on Saturday.

“You want to be a champion, everybody wants to be a champion every year,” Dantonio said. “Everybody strives to be a champion, and that's what you want to measure yourself against. You want to drive towards that, and when you're playing well and everything's going as you would hope, it's a lot easier. When things start to fall apart is more difficult

“It’s difficult, but you gotta rally back. That's the way I know how to do it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau