Michigan State football takes a long, hard fall

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Spartan quarterback Tyler O'Connor sits on the turf in dejection after the offense failed to score in overtime and MSU gets upset by Indiana, 24-21, on Oct. 1.

East Lansing — The line between having a down season and outright collapse can be a fine one. For Michigan State, that line was obliterated weeks ago.

It’s hard to fathom where the Spartans sit today — 2-7 overall, 0-6 in the Big Ten. They have lost seven straight for the first time since 1982 and are 0-6 in conference for the first time in history.

But the misery doesn’t end there.

With three games left, the best the Spartans can do is finish 5-7. The reality, however, seems to say 3-9 or 2-10 are more likely. And, either of those marks would signal a stunning reversal of fortune for Michigan State, and that’s what is truly remarkable about the 2016 season.

The only worse seasons? The 0-9 season of 1917 that featured a game against Camp MacArthur, and the 2-9 mark in 1982.

“It’s amazing when you really take it into context where we’re at right now compared to where we were at last year,” said coach Mark Dantonio, who saw Michigan State earn a spot in last year’s College Football Playoff and had won 11 or more games five of the last six seasons. “But that’s reality. Reality sets in on you.”

That was from the only man who might be more surprised than anyone by what has transpired the last seven weeks — all games where Michigan State held a lead at some point and all seven ending up in defeat. Dantonio was more aware than most of the holes the Spartans had to fill entering this season, but it’s still hard for a coach in his 10th season to comprehend.

“Shocking,” Dantonio said without hesitation. “Like I told my players, I live it. ... I work 90 hours a week at this. Our players are young people, they’re resilient. They’re living it, too. Our coaches, this is what we do for a living. They live it.

“You scratch your head a little bit, how this could happen.”

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Still, it has happened.

It’s happened for a team that was 36-5 the previous three seasons and won two Big Ten titles.

It’s happened for Dantonio, who in 12 previous years as a coach had two losing seasons (4-7 at Cincinnati in 2005, 6-7 at Michigan State in 2009).

Heavy attrition

Figuring out how Michigan State got to this point in such fashion is a little more difficult to determine, though the simple answer is it doesn’t have the players it did the past several years.

Reality shows three offensive line starters and three defensive line starters from 2015 all made NFL rosters, as did Big Ten receiver of the year Aaron Burbridge and Connor Cook, the winningest quarterback in program history. The year before that, cornerback Trae Waynes left early and was the No. 11 pick, and Tony Lippett, the top conference receiver in 2014, was drafted along with running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Keith Mumphery.

Spartan Cornerback Tyson Smith (15) walks off the field in dejection as Michigan State falls to UM, 32-23, at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 29.

“You look at some of the things that have happened from a personnel standpoint and you got to remember at times we’re playing with three true freshmen defensive linemen,” Dantonio said of ends Josh King and Auston Robertson and tackle Mike Panasiuk. “You ask yourself, the three guys that just left are playing in the NFL on the defensive line, Joel Heath, (Lawrence Thomas), although he’s out right now, and Shilique (Calhoun), where were they at as true freshmen? They were not near ready to play at this level.”

Dantonio laments Michigan State's 'unacceptable' record

But teams lose players every year and reload. Michigan State has done it to some degree. Bennie Fowler to Lippett to Burbridge. Greg Jones to Max Bullough to Riley Bullough.

What’s different this time is the Spartans are counting on young players — freshmen, redshirt freshmen and a few sophomores — to fill roles they aren’t ready for. Some of that is because they’re getting little from the senior class other than receiver R.J. Shelton, at least on a consistent basis, and part of it is because of a rash of injuries.

Nine players have started in the secondary along with six players at linebacker. Seven combinations have been used along the offensive line and, of course, quarterback has been a revolving door.

As a result, nine true freshmen have played with three getting starts at some point the first nine games.

“We’re a young football team,” Dantonio said. “We oftentimes have a redshirt at offensive tackle, a redshirt freshman left guard, a true freshman at right tackle. These things are growing pains that we go through sometimes. I wish these growing pains maybe would have occurred earlier.

“What’s troubling is that these occur in your 10th year as a coach. You have to ask yourself what’s going on.”

Leadership needed

What’s going on is there was a gap in recruiting, specifically 2013 when only one offensive lineman was recruited — Dennis Finley — and few from that class are contributing outside Shelton. That puts the pressure on the younger class, one that will be counted on to turn things around.

Those nine true freshmen, the redshirt freshmen and the players Michigan State expects to sign in February, all will play a role.

And for those still around, there is a unique perspective. Redshirt junior quarterback Damion Terry came to campus in fall 2013, the Spartans fresh off a dismal 2012 season but about to embark on a record-setting season.

“Blake Treadwell, Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, they got everyone in the same mindset,” Terry said. “That’s gonna be huge next year coming off a season like this … 2-7.”

Terry stopped and shook his head.

“That’s more games than I’ve lost my whole time here so it’s been different,” he said. “Being an older guy having younger guys look up to me is different. But me and the other guys will accept the challenge.”

It might be the biggest challenge of the Dantonio era — taking a team from the depths of the conference back to contention. It will help with better health, more experience, shrewder play-calling and even better leadership.

As Dantonio says repeatedly, it’s all-inclusive.

“You just keep coaching,” he said. “It’s difficult at times because it was a tough loss last week, very tough, for everybody, for me. But that’s where we’re at.

“I just keep saying we cannot live in the past. We’ve got to learn from the past, but we have to live in the present. The only thing we can focus on is the next challenge.”



Numbers game

Where Michigan State ranks statistically in the Big Ten:

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Ohio State13.8285.314951073
Penn State25.6364.117801497
Michigan State30.138419621494
Ohio State44.8503.721162417
Penn State34.441520841651
Michigan State23.6402.621441479