State College, Pa. — The weight of what the 2016 season was for Michigan State was finally settling in Saturday night at Beaver Stadium. The heads were shaking. The eyes were red. There were deep sighs.
Michigan State had just gotten blown out, 45-12, by No. 8 Penn State in the final game of the season. It ended a 3-9 nightmare that included just one victory in the Big Ten — all just a year after the Spartans had won a second conference championship in three years and reached the College Football Playoffs.
The Back2Back mantra died long ago, and the Spartans were dealing with reality.
“I just feel sorrowful for everything that happened this year,” fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor said. “The rest of the seniors, the coaches, all of the guys, no one deserves this type of season and for it to end this way. All of Spartan nation that has been with us this whole ride doesn’t deserve this.
“But reflecting and being in the locker room after the game, the biggest thing that hit the hardest are the relationships and the last time you’re in the locker room with the guys. Seeing people cry makes you cry, you start thinking about how you could have been better for someone else and how you could have changed things for other people around me. That’s the biggest thing.”
How things went was nearly impossible to predict before the season after a three-year run of 36 wins and five losses which capped nine straight trips to a bowl game. Instead, the Spartans won three games, their fewest since earning three in 1991.
It was especially difficult to a senior class that played a large role in the recent success.
“It’s hard to grasp right now but it’s tough,” senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton said.
For linebacker Riley Bullough, the final seconds ticking away Saturday night amidst the celebration of the Penn State crowd was hard, but he was reflecting on the positive.
“It was tough, but at the same time I look back at my time here with so many great memories, made great friends,” he said. “That’s what I’ll remember about this place. Even this year, we had our ups and downs but coming in each and every day working with the guys, we still had a lot of fun even though the season didn’t turn out the way we wanted. Michigan State is a great place with some great people and I had an awesome time.”
Returning Michigan State to greatness will be the focus moving forward. The coaching staff was on the road Sunday to recruit and the returning players were set to meet at 7 a.m. Monday.
It will be a difficult task to put 2016 in the rearview mirror and there are plenty of questions. Who will be quarterback is near the top of the list and junior Damion Terry at least showed he’s a factor with his play Saturday.
After that, the continued development of the offensive and defensive lines will be critical as will finding the right secondary.
“We thanked the seniors for everything they’ve done for this program and what they’ve brought this program,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We have a meeting Monday morning and 2017 starts now. This stuff doesn’t happen again. Pretty much the same thing we’re all saying. We can’t do this again.
“We’ve had our struggles but a lot of times they’re saying, ‘Michigan State’s so young, they’re so young.’ Starting tomorrow, nobody’s young anymore. Guys have had a full season and spring under their belt. They’re going into their second spring. Guys got to make that extra leap forward in their game. … I think guys are going to realize, ‘This is not who we are and we don’t want to do this anymore.’ We got to come in strong next year and be ready.”
Dantonio said he plans to make no coaching changes, something fans have been screaming for all season.
Instead, Dantonio said the work will begin immediately. There will be no bowl game to prepare for, so looking to 2017 begins right away.
“The positive is that we start early,” Dantonio said. “We start discovering who we are, what we need to fix, who we are recruiting, who’s coming in and what we have to do. That all starts at an earlier time now. So we’re not going to take a month to figure out who we’re going to play or prepare for somebody that we’re going to play in January.
“I wish we could, but this time will be spent re-evaluating ourselves and looking at what we have to do to make things better and correct some issues.”
The issues are clear and now it’s on Dantonio to prove he has the right people to solve them.