MSU might be at turning point after ‘crazy’ start

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
R.J. Shelton

East Lansing – Back in 2012 it was a phrase that was used often around the Michigan State football program.

“All of our goals are still in front of us,” was repeated, even as the losses piled up, most of them in games that went down to the wire.

Now, just four games into the 2016 season, the Spartans are saying the same thing. The only difference this time around – at least at this point – is that it’s true, for the most part.

Mathematically, Michigan State can still win the Big Ten East, it can still get back to the conference championship game, and it still has that little rivalry to play against Michigan at the end of the month. The bigger goal of getting back to the College Football Playoff seems pretty-well squashed with two losses overall.

Reality, however, says Mark Dantonio’s team is desperately trying to regain the form that saw them win two of the last three Big Ten titles while beating Ohio State twice and going a perfect 3-for-3 against Michigan. The Spartans also won the Rose and Cotton bowls and reached the playoffs.

If there’s any hope of creating a new reality and cashing in on the mathematical path, it starts Saturday  at Spartan Stadium against BYU.

“We just have to believe in each other because it’s crazy us being 2-2,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “We still have our goals in front of us. We can finish out the season on a high note, which we will, and coming up against a great team like BYU you’ve got to come to play. We’re at home so we need to fix the mistakes we had against Indiana and make plays when we need to.”

Michigan State vs. BYU preview: Stop the skid

It’s all fairly simple to talk about, and for a guy like Shelton, who has experienced only winning during his time at Michigan State, turning it around will be a challenge. There are no secrets, even as there is some disbelief to the .500 record. But it’s clear, Michigan State needs to play far better before the popular phrase loses any legitimacy.

The biggest issue on offense has been the lack of consistency. The Spartans exploded for 36 straight points at Notre Dame, but that type of play has eluded the Spartans since. There have been flashes – an 86-yard touchdown pass from Tyler O’Connor to Shelton last week was one – but with so many new faces and shuffling positons, maintaining that production hasn’t happened.

Entering the BYU game, Michigan State ranks 12th in the Big Ten in scoring (22.8 points per game) and eighth in total offense (406.3 yards per game).

The blame has been across the board. O’Connor has struggled at times, receivers have run the wrong routes and dropped a few passes, and the offensive line has yet to truly come together as a unit. It’s all led to the frustrating start.

Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. BYU

“The O-line trying to take that, ‘Hey, what am I doing?’ philosophy,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “I think overall, positionally, as long as each man does that in each room we should be fine.

“The flubs aren’t as grand. They’re just at key times. We’ve had them before throughout our time here but just the timing of them this year. Sometimes the ball bounces to you and sometimes it bounces away from you. It seems like it’s been bouncing away from us more often right now.”

Michigan State will have its chances to turn things around Saturday. BYU allowed 53 points last week against Toledo and is 96th in the nation in total defense, allowing 444.2 yards a game.

“We know the reasons we’re 2-2,” Shelton said. “Missed assignments, not making enough plays, not doing the right things on both sides of the ball, special teams. We’ve got to get it cleaned up.”

The defense has been having its share of problems, as well. It’s been solid against the run, ranking 16th in the country, but that ranking plummets to 77th against the pass and 76th in third-down conversions allowed.

Jamaal Williams

The injuries have piled up as linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke remain out of the lineup and defensive tackle Raequan Williams will not play because of an injury. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell (targeting penalty) will also miss the first half as the Spartans try to contain an offense that features quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams, who ran for 286 yards last week and is third in the country at 140.6 yards rushing a game.

“Just like any Big Ten back – doing a tremendous job,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said of Williams. “He’s a stiff-arm runner, he gets yards after contact and that’s our challenge, to be able to stop him. He is a good back and we’re looking forward to the challenge against Mr. Williams.”

The challenge could simply be it’s a fresh start for the Spartans. The players held their own meeting during the week to try and refocus and most have said practices this week have been crisp.

There’s no guarantee it translates into a turning point in the season, but Dantonio thinks his team is taking the right approach.

“Regardless of what's happened in the past, you have an opportunity to make it right and to play forward and start to improve those particular situations that allow you to win a game,” Dantonio said. “That's what we have to do. I think there's conviction on our football team. I know our football team and everybody's hurting a little bit and they'll be ready to play. I'm quite confident they'll be ready to play.”

Twitter @mattcharboneau