Michigan State takeaways: Mark Dantonio is grasping at straws

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau after Michigan State's 28-7 loss to Penn State on Saturday.

Searching for answers 

For some teams, it’s simple to see what the issues are when the losses start to pile up. But when the problems are seemingly everywhere, it can often result in what we’re seeing now when Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio heads to the podium after games – a coach who’s grasping at straws. The Spartans lost their third straight on Saturday night, this time 28-7 to No. 6 Penn State. It was the third in a row against a top-10 team, but it’s beginning to be tough to bet on the results being much different even if the opponents hadn’t been ranked among the best in the nation. Michigan State has shown little to no offensive firepower during the three-game slide while the once-reliable defense has started to crumble.

What’s more alarming is that it seems the coaching staff has no answers. Dantonio did an interesting quarterback shuffle in the fourth quarter, going from Brian Lewerke to Rocky Lombardi to Theo Day back to Lewerke and back to Lombardi. His explanation as to why did little to shed light on the decision-making, but the idea that changing the quarterback down three touchdowns with 12 minutes to play would spark a comeback seemed like a reach. And when it comes to play-calling, Dantonio at one point said MSU is running the same stuff many teams are, then said at least the Spartans aren’t 2-7. It’s not that long ago this program was consistently playing for championships, but it feels like much longer.

MSU head coach Mark Dantonio disagrees with a call in the first quarter.

Look to the future 

With any thought of a championship now off the table, deciding what the priorities are over the final four games becomes important. The Spartans still need to win two more games to become bowl eligible and that will certainly be one priority. But with a large number of starters on both sides of the ball set to graduate, there must be at least an eye to the future. That becomes tricky when the status of the coaching staff seems up in the air, but they’ll continue to operate as if they’ll all be back.

To that end, it’s a fair question to wonder how many young players start to see more action. It could be a talent upgrade in some spots, though with youth comes inevitable mistakes. Some names to keep an eye on over the last few weeks include offensive linemen J.D. Duplain, Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac, while wide receivers Julian Barnett and Tre Mosley should get more and more snaps after playing well in the second half Saturday. Anthony Williams got his first touchdown while fellow freshman Brandon Wright got his first work backing up Elijah Collins. Over on defense, pay attention to names like Michael Fletcher and Adam Berghorst at defensive end.

Injuries piling up 

Something that might force the coaching staff’s hand is the number of injuries that are starting to pile up, primarily on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line was already down Cole Chewins and Kevin Jarvis, and while AJ Arcuri and Blake Bueter returned from injuries, it’s a unit that has failed to establish itself this season, meaning it could be the right time to move on to younger players.

The skill positions, again, are getting hit the hardest, primarily wide receiver. CJ Hayes did not play because of an injury while Stewart and Laress Nelson were hurt during the game and did not return, leading to the extended use of Barnett and Mosley. In the backfield, Collins was slowed by an ankle issue, giving Williams and Wright more work, while tight end Matt Seybert was hurt, too. The defense has been spared, for the most part. Linebacker Tyriq Thompson and end Jacub Panasiuk both got hurt but returned to the game.

Not so special

The special teams for the Spartans have struggled most of the season and Saturday’s game might have been the low point. Kicker Matt Coghlin had his only field-goal attempt of the game blocked on a half-hearted attempt at protecting the kicker while punter Jake Hartbarger had, arguably, his worst day as a Spartan, even recording a 5-yard punt.

The return game, something that has never been that electric under Dantonio, was miserable against Penn State. With Stewart out, MSU turned to several options returning kickoffs, including Barnett and walk-on Andre Welch, though none really made an impact. On punt returns, Brandon Sowards struggled, adding fuel to the fire of fans who simply can’t understand why Sowards is on the field. The sixth-year player had four returns for 7 yards but it was his fumble at the MSU 6 that was the critical second-half dagger, leading to Penn State taking a four-touchdown lead.

Apathy in East Lansing

Early in the season, when Michigan State needed a road map to find the end zone, the fan base was upset, angry, frustrated. They showed that emotion by booing the home team, most notably in the 10-7 loss to Arizona State. By the second half on Saturday, much of that fan base had headed home, leaving a few diehards and some Penn State fans to stick it out. A lot of that was the weather, but when a team plays as uninspired as Michigan State, it makes the decision to stay or go an easy one.

What’s worse is Saturday’s atmosphere wasn’t of frustration or anger. Instead, it was one of apathy. There were few boos, even when the stands were almost full, a sign that the fans have checked out. Who can blame them? It’s the worst position to be in – instead of a fan base that’s upset, this seems to be one that is simply done and ready to move on.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau