Henning: Talent void puts slumping Spartans in dire straits

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Spartan quarterback Tyler O'Connor gets sacked to end the team's final drive of the game.

East Lansing – It’s a full-moon Saturday evening in East Lansing and something approximating a werewolf sighting occurred a few hours ago at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State’s football team was slain by Northwestern, 54-40. If the score makes no sense, neither does the fact a Wildcats team scored more points than the Spartans had in rushing yardage (51).

It gets crazier as frightening football events and pure strangeness are tallied following MSU’s fourth consecutive whipping.

The Spartans once were ahead Saturday, 14-0. Then, after treating the Wildcats to a 33-3 run that put Pat Fitzgerald’s team on top, 33-24, MSU closed to 33-31 with 2:08 to play in the third. The Wildcats decided this game of Red Rover called for an instant response, which came when Solomon Vault danced past the Spartans’ kickoff defenders for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Michigan State never again got close on a day when the Wildcats came to understand this 2016 version of Michigan State football has only a theoretical relationship with defense and bears no resemblance to past Mark Dantonio teams.

It’s a bit difficult to fathom. Or, for proof there, ask a homecoming crowd of 75,625. Rather, ask those alums and fans who had stopped shaking their heads long enough Saturday to craft thoughts and questions spurred by an astonishing football free-fall at a place that seemed hard-wired for annual high performance.

“Just one?” Dantonio asked, with gallows wit, when asked what area had most concerned him during MSU’s shocking reunion with the loss column.

‘No easy fix’: It’s bad to worse for MSU with 4th straight loss

The coach checked off a long list of failures even a 60-year-old man of his vintage couldn’t seem to comprehend: no rushing attack, no four-man pass rush, problems covering downfield passes, special-teams breakdowns, etc.

Facts are tough to acknowledge because Dantonio doesn’t want to indict his kids, or blame them more than he blames himself and his staff. But the reality is obvious. The Spartans got caught in a bit of a personnel vacuum in 2016.

Dantonio’s gang lost heavily on MSU’s biggest areas of breakdown, the offensive and defensive fronts, and hasn’t had the seasoned strength to replace kids who give any football team its moorings.

Injuries are part of it, of course. And a bad 2013 recruiting class is another culprit.

The simple truth is Dantonio hasn’t lost his seemingly bulletproof program. But he has lost a season to all the variables that make college football less than precision science.

Next year, it’s a reasonable bet the Spartans will be back in solid, if not championship, shape and 2016 will look as out of whack as another year filled with mystery and meltdowns, 2012, which preceded a Rose Bowl bounce-back.

But that isn’t overly helping Spartan spirits with one-half of 2016 to play.

The Spartans are 2-4 and have the thinnest of shots at making a bowl game. It’s not a happy picture when they look ripe for massacres against Michigan and Ohio State and when they then would need to beat Maryland, Illinois, Rutgers, and Penn State to finish 6-6.

Even if Dantonio’s defense was playing adequately to keep them in four winnable games, MSU’s perils on offense are truly bamboozling. Focus in football always is on the quarterback, and the Spartans have trouble enough there with neither Tyler O’Connor nor Saturday’s hope, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, reminding anyone of old gunslingers Connor Cook or Kirk Cousins.

But neither is a quarterback, virtually any quarterback, going to compensate for a MSU team that ran the ball 23 times Saturday and gained a net 51 yards.

The O-line is indeed a disaster area and isn’t apt to change profile dramatically during State’s final six games.

Then again, the moment you fixate on one area of deep need on MSU’s roster, it’s easy to deny other people their proper failing grades.

The poor safeties, Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson, have been carved into sushi strips for two consecutive seasons and pretty much personify MSU’s inadequacies at starting spots and in finding backup options.

All of this was mentioned following Saturday’s game to Dantonio, not as an accusation but as simple observation. He had to level. And he did.

“It’s probably accurate,” he said, not dodging what was plain to anyone who has watched the Spartans in 2016.

He spoke of people hurt and people lost and too many tender kids playing at positions where a minimum of crust is needed.

“There’s a whole litany of things,” Dantonio said, mentioning that the slightest miscue or misstep seems always to be setting back his team, keeping it from making plays that might change entirely a game’s flow and final score.

He’s right, of course. The Spartans have specialized during many of his 10 seasons here in finding just enough edge to win close games and to, yes, steal their share of final scores that probably should have gone the other way.

This year, too many inferior players wearing green and white are swinging games in a very different direction, sometimes graphically, as was the case Saturday when a so-so Northwestern bunch popped the Spartans for those 54 points.

It isn’t necessarily a closed case in East Lansing. The Spartans fly into Maryland next week for a game against a team that Saturday could do nothing against Minnesota. Illinois is in trouble, as once again is Rutgers, while Penn State is certainly stronger than MSU today, although stronger doesn’t necessarily mean victory these days at Happy Valley.

It’s something for a team to think about. Because it’s all that remains, the base mission to win a few football games and at least harbor bowl-game thoughts.

Otherwise, a team faces the specter of joining its fans, whose minds already have turned to basketball and to what their favorite football coach might be able to reconstruct in 2017.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com @Lynn_Henning