Henning: Shocking how Spartans got slapped around

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

East Lansing – What seemed a certainty as long as Michigan State and Mark Dantonio were a couple no longer is a lock.

The Spartans looked as if they had sealed a deal with their fans and with the fates. No more in East Lansing was winning a question. It was a matter of how many football games a year MSU would gulp down: Ten, 11, nine, maybe eight in a down year.

There was too much industrial-strength beef in those offensive and defensive fronts. Too many bloodthirsty linebackers. They had skill on both sides of the ball, a nice line of succession at quarterback, good recruits getting better by the year, and Dantonio’s quiet, steady wisdom making a head coach’s job appear more like stewardship.

And then you get a fist to the chops. To the gut. And maybe a nasty kick elsewhere.

This is college football. And it isn’t easy, something the Spartans are proving in 2016 and absolutely confirmed Saturday in getting deli-sliced by Brigham Young, 31-14, at breezy, chilly Spartan Stadium, where fans could be perceived wondering how many weeks before Tom Izzo and the basketball stars tip off.

This was remarkable Saturday. The way the Spartans got pushed around. They got punished up front, they missed tackles galore, they acted as if third down was something you politely conceded to a visitor, all while their offense was rolling up (cough, cough) 206 yards against a Cougars team that last week allowed Toledo a bit more than 500 yards passing.

Dantonio walked into the interview room afterward looking, and sounding at moments, like a man who had been caught in a rowboat when Hurricane Matthew arrived.

He spoke correctly of how MSU’s football had been “built on a solid foundation” that had taken nine years to construct. He mentioned the Spartans’ “climb up the mountain” and what he had told his players afterward.

'Very disappointed': Spartans sinking with 3rd straight loss

“That ride down the mountain,” the coach said, “can be very quick.”


No penalty there for targeting.

The Spartans, now a rather incredible 2-3 on the year, need to get this mess sorted out and figure out a way to finish bowl-eligible. That’s essential. And still doable, although they might want to get busy with a victory no later than Saturday in East Lansing against Northwestern.

They likely will begin any October surge with a new quarterback. Tyler O’Connor’s days as starter appeared to dissolve Saturday when Dantonio yanked him in the third quarter after he had thrown for 58 yards, been sacked, and had helped the Spartans to all of seven points.

The coach afterward was diplomatic. It wasn’t O’Connor’s fault. The Spartans’ offensive anemia wasn’t all his fault.

But in Dantonio’s voice you could hear, rather unmistakably it seemed, that he and his team cannot continue with O’Connor, who simply lacks the vision and the command, as well as the two-way talents, which, in a disintegrating football game made his Saturday replacement, Damion Terry, a better choice.

For now, anyway.

“I don’t think he was playing badly,” Dantonio said, warming up to his bottom-line critique of O’Connor, “but you can’t take sacks.”

So, prepare for Terry. And, if he doesn’t work out, perhaps for MSU’s likely 2017 triggerman, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke. In any event the quarterback issue, which Dantonio twice was careful to mention Saturday is “not a controversy,” speaks to how drastic are times for a MSU football team that was supposed to have been championship-caliber in 2016.

Dantonio is also right to insist this by no means is a quarterback issue, only.

Count the ways in which the Spartans have fallen from their past perch.

The offensive and defensive fronts aren’t close to being trustworthy. Malik McDowell is tremendous, but the Spartans’ defensive front took enormous losses, right down to the cold separation the Spartans had with Craig Evans, who had disciplinary problems and headed elsewhere.

The offensive line has been re-aligned and things haven’t gone a great deal better there. Linebacker stood to be its usual sturdy bastion for the Spartans, at least until half the corps got hurt. And now you, too, can grab a football and plow through MSU’s front and second tier with not a lot of grief, especially when they tackle no better than the Spartans did Saturday.

Throw in a spectacularly curious fall-off in MSU’s special teams, whether it’s Jake Hartbarger’s shallow punts, place-kicker Michael Geiger’s mysterious issues and exile, or a nondescript punt-return team that doesn’t get a lot of overtime because the opposing team isn’t punting a great deal, and presto, you have yourself a team that’s in astonishing trouble.

“I told them,” Dantonio said of his post-game words to his players, “things can always get worse.”

It didn’t begin all that somberly Saturday. The Spartans threw together a beautiful first drive, ironically built on O’Connor’s steady stream of passes, and jumped ahead, 7-0. It seemed as if a mission to get O’Connor comfortable and in rhythm had worked with precision and fabulous forethought.

Then they shut down the passing game. They went to the ground. Field position was part of it. But that quickly, the game changed. Two quarters later, O’Connor was gone. And a bad defeat was all but assured.

You’re going to have off-seasons anywhere in college football, this side, perhaps of Tuscaloosa, Ala., or for the foreseeable future, at Columbus and Ann Arbor.

But an off-season at MSU was supposed to have been 8-4, perhaps 7-5. Now it’s looking as if 6-6 and a bowl game will be a terrific recovery. This new reality, quite against anyone’s forecast even a month ago, is all a bit hard to fathom.

It’s not too late. Get the new QB ready to play and beat Northwestern at home next week. That evens the field and puts a bowl game within reach.

Otherwise, yes, next weekend is Midnight Madness, Izzo’s guys will be dancing onto the court, and fans will want anything to make them forget as quickly as possible a football season as bizarre and cruel as 2016 could yet become for the Spartans.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning