East Lansing — Considering the deluge of water that was dumped on Spartan Stadium Saturday afternoon into the early evening, maybe Mark Dantonio’s approach to the rest of the season seemed fitting.
“You can’t abandon ship right now,” Dantonio said after Michigan State dropped its third straight, this time a 28-7 loss at the hands of No. 6 Penn State.
It was the third time in as many games the Spartans faced a team ranked in the top 10, and once again the Spartans did their best at proving they’re nowhere near the same level as those teams. Ohio State and Wisconsin were the first two teams to knock Michigan State to the ground before Penn State did the same.
Losing to teams all competing for a potential spot in the College Football Playoff hardly indicates a program in peril, but for Michigan State, the last three games over a four-week span have felt like much more than just three ordinary losses.
The same issues continue to plague the Spartans, and most of those lie with an offense that once again ranks among the worst in the nation. Michigan State has scored a grand total of 17 points over the last three games and only a third-quarter touchdown run from freshman Anthony Williams kept a scoreless streak from reaching beyond eight quarters.
“From my perspective we need to execute better,” Dantonio said. “There are things that we can do from a call situation. We've got a lot of the same plays that other people run as well, timing and who to go to and those type of things, but we will look at everything. We'll address everything.”
In other words, nothing is working. Dantonio is right, the execution isn’t there. From missing throws to dropping passes to running the wrong plays to missing a block — it has all contributed. But so, too, has the fact Dantonio’s coaching “changes” have done nothing to spark this offense. From Dave Warner now to Brad Salem, Michigan State is the same team it’s been for the better part of four seasons.
Last season, the Spartans were 116th in scoring out of 130 teams. Through eight games this season, they’re tied for 110th. Add in the fact the once-reliable defense has finally started to crumble under the weight of needing to be perfect every week, and Michigan State is a program without any real direction right now.
A ship that seems to be going down. Or, more aptly, one that many might abandon.
“You can't do that,” Dantonio exclaimed. “That does not work, I know that. You have to remain positive. We have to get ourselves healed up. We have a lot of guys who are banged up, nicked up; guys that haven't played. You got to try to get those guys back and you have to stay positive that we are 4-4.
“That's the beauty in it, I guess, if there is any beauty there. The beauty is we're not 2-7, we're 4-4.”
That might be the epitome of seeing the glass as half full and it might fly at a lot of places. But Dantonio built Michigan State into a contender, and before the season began, the confidence was high. There was no plan to be happy the season hadn’t completely disintegrated.
But that’s where the Spartans are now, apparently, happy they’re still .500 and the likelihood of repeating the misery that was 2016 seems remote.
Maybe somebody is good with that, but judging by the empty seats at Spartan Stadium in the second half on Saturday and the general apathy that seems to be taking over, how many fans bother to see where this season ends is fair to question. Yes, the awful weather sent some folks home, but when the team is playing uninspired football, it becomes an easy decision.
So, Dantonio takes his 4-4 mark and does his best to find the positives as Michigan State heads into its second bye in three weeks.
“We got to take that and try to build on those things and get ourselves ready for Illinois,” Dantonio said, referencing the opponent when the Spartans return to the field. “The only way I know how to do that is like I said before — stay tough, stay tough-minded, stay positive; don't get negative on people, place blame and say it's your fault. Stay positive and build into people and keep grinding. That's the only way I've known how to do it and that's what we'll continue to do.”
Where that takes this team is anyone’s guess. There’s plenty of experience on both sides of the ball but most of that experience has seen only mediocrity. And now that injuries are starting to pile up, it’s fair to look at the schedule and start wondering if a bowl game is in this team’s future.
Illinois, once seen as a sure win, has now won two straight, including an upset of Wisconsin. And, of course, there’s the trip to rival Michigan, which just whipped Notre Dame, a top-10 team. After that it’s Rutgers and Maryland, two teams the Spartans should beat and might have to just to reach six wins.
It’s not at all how anyone expected this season to go, and now with most goals tossed out the window, the Spartans will need to look for more than simply getting their first win since the end of September.
“Respect,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said when asked what the Spartans are playing for. “You play for respect, your dignity, I mean the name on the front — Michigan State. You play for that Spartan on your helmet. You play for the guys who did it before you. You play for all that. It doesn’t matter. We could be 0-8 right now. We’re gonna get out there and we’re gonna play our backends off as if we’re 8-0.”