East Lansing – The primary goal was accomplished on Friday at the Pinstripe Bowl – Michigan State closed the season with a victory, beating Wake Forest, 27-21, and avoiding a sub-.500 record while sending its senior class out on a positive note.
That goal, however, was short term. The longer-term goal remains for coach Mark Dantonio, and that’s getting Michigan State back to where it was for the first part of the decade – contending for Big Ten championships while playing in college football’s biggest postseason games.
After two straight 7-6 seasons that included woefully inept offenses, the fanbase is starting to waver on whether Dantonio can return the Spartans to the lofty status they held. Dantonio, not surprisingly, is far more optimistic.
“I'm always excited about the future, to be honest with you,” Dantonio said after the win over Wake Forest. “I always look forward to the next challenge, next goal in your life, bringing people with you.”
The next challenge feels like a daunting one. Over the past four seasons, the Spartans have compiled a 27-24 record since their appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Before that, Dantonio had elevated Michigan State into the upper echelon in the Big Ten and around the nation. The Spartans won the Big Ten championship in 2010, 2013 and 2015 and won 10 or more games four times while earning four bowl victories in row. Even after the 3-9 collapse in 2016, Michigan State rebounded with 10 wins in 2017.
But from the moment the playoff season ended, the slide has continued for the Spartans, which begs the question: What does the future Dantonio is excited for actually look like?
Dantonio said he’ll be back for season No. 14 in 2020 and he’s got the backing of athletic director Bill Beekman and president Samuel Stanley Jr., who offered his support in the direction of the program prior to kickoff Friday.
“I think coach Dantonio has really an incredible track record as you know -- the winningest coach in MSU history -- so I am pleased with direction of the program overall,” Stanley said. “The season was not what we hoped for, there’s no question, but I think he is the right person to continue.”
With Dantonio seemingly in place, determining the makeup of the staff is the first question to answer. Continuity of his assistants has been the hallmark of Dantonio’s time at Michigan State, but the first hint at changes occurred last offseason. The shuffling of responsibilities was one indication, but the most telling indicator was the fact the entire offensive staff, as well as assistant defensive backs coach Terrence Samuel, were placed on one-year contracts instead of the two-year deals they had, the same ones the defensive assistants remained under.
That, of course, makes changes a bit easier. The number and how significant those changes are is tough to gauge, but the offensive performance over the past four seasons indicates there would almost certainly be changes among the group that includes coordinator and running backs coach Brad Salem, quarterbacks coach Dave Warner, offensive line coach Jim Bollman, tight ends coach Mark Staten and wide receivers coach Don Treadwell.
Entering Friday’s Pinstripe Bowl, Michigan State ranked 107th in the nation in scoring at 22 points a game. In 2018, the Spartans ranked 125th, were 96th in 2017 and 104th in 2016.
Those sorts of numbers would mean an overhaul for most coaches, but Dantonio has held off.
“I'll make those decisions,” Dantonio said. “We'll make those decisions and sit down and think about those types of things after the season.”
That time is now, and changes might not be limited to the offense. Former co-coordinator and defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett will be on the market after Florida State’s bowl game on Tuesday and the secondary was a position that had its share of struggles this season.
However the staff shakes out, there are holes to fill on the field, too.
The biggest, of course, is at quarterback. Rocky Lombardi, who will be a junior next season, has been the backup the past two seasons and has started three games. But he hasn’t done enough to be the clear successor to Brian Lewerke, bringing sophomore-to-be Theo Day into the mix as well as Payton Thorne, who just redshirted.
The Spartans could also look to the transfer portal for a quarterback, something Dantonio said he would consider.
Whoever is under center will have the benefit of an emerging group of young skill players. From running back Elijah Collins to wide receivers Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley, as well as a young offensive line, there are plenty of pieces.
“We had some young guys step up,” said wide receiver Cody White, who is testing the NFL Draft waters but figures to be back for his senior year. “For them to be able to be so young, playing as freshmen and being able to have a big role in offense going into next year, it just boosts their confidence.”
There will also be a significant number of changes to the defense, which has been the backbone of the team, even this year when it allowed big plays on a regular basis and struggled to close games.
End Kenny Willekes, tackles Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams, linebacker Tyriq Thompson and safety David Dowell are all gone. And linebacker Joe Bachie was done after being suspended with four games left in the season.
Replacing Bachie will be critical, and for the first time since Dantonio first arrived, the next middle linebacker is a question. The typically solid secondary has also lost its swagger, but the Spartans have the luxury of getting linebacker Antjuan Simmons for another year.
“Going into offseason there is a lot of momentum,” Simmons said. “Well, not a lot but some momentum, and we know we have to keep our mindset positive.”
It’s easier to do that finishing the season with a win. The reality of the bigger picture, though, will soon come into focus. Michigan State is a team four years removed from a championship and hasn’t truly contended in that time. So, simply finishing with a winning season doesn’t cut it.
Dantonio knows it. The question is: What will he do to get back to that level?
“I keep talking to our players about, ‘What is next? How do you handle your challenges coming down the road for you?’” Dantonio said. “That's how we'll spring forward. That's always how we've done it.”