Spartans' Dantonio on dismal year: 'This will be fixed'
East Lansing — It’s been almost three weeks since Michigan State walked off the football field at Penn State, the miserable 2016 season finally over.
A year almost no one inside the Michigan State program — and few outside, for that matter — saw coming had ended with a 45-12 defeat, the most one-sided of the season but far from the only disappointment.
Instead of getting ready to play in the conference championship game or look forward to who it might play in a bowl game, Michigan State, as a program, was left to try and figure out what went wrong. How did a team that had just been in the College Football Playoffs the year before and won the conference title two of the three previous years get to this point?
For a collapse of that nature, there are few simple answers, and as Mark Dantonio hit the road recruiting a few days later, he had time to reflect. He had wondered openly, in the wake of the defeat at Penn State, if his program needed a season like this.
It was on his mind during a long car ride to Cincinnati.
“I turned off the radio and I just drove by myself four and a half, five hours, you know, I needed that time just to make sure that I could sort of compartmentalize what's gone on from my perspective, what we need to do and my mindset moving forward,” Dantonio said on Thursday. “And when I got out of that car and I went … up the road for another two hours up to Columbus to see my mother, that was another two hours of sitting there.
“But do we want this to happen? No, we don't want this to happen. Do we need sometimes for these things to happen, to be able to pull the weeds, to be able to clear the crops, to be able to let the land lie dormant for six months to create growth? We probably do at some point. I'm disappointed this happened during my time, disappointed that it happened this year for our seniors and our entire football team.”
There are plenty of reasons it all happened. In fact, Dantonio had a list of 15 things written on a piece of paper with him Thursday. He went into a few — injuries, poor turnover margin, lack of pass rush, not converting in the red zone were just some.
Turning those things around and avoiding a repeat next season will be the biggest coaching challenge of Dantonio’s career. He said again on Thursday that he will make no changes in his coaching staff, though that doesn’t guarantee someone wouldn’t leave for a promotion.
Offensive line coach Mark Staten interviewed for the head coaching job at Northern Michigan before pulling his name from consideration, while quarterbacks coach Brad Salem could draw interest from former colleague Pat Narduzzi, who is looking for an offensive coordinator at Pitt.
“It's the same staff we won the Big Ten championship that everybody was celebrating last year,” Dantonio said. “It's the same staff that won the Rose Bowl basically, same staff that went to the Cotton Bowl that had record-setting numbers in '14.”
With the same staff, the changes will have to come on the field.
The fact the Spartans played so many young players in 2016 was a negative, but Dantonio is hoping it becomes a positive. They played nine true freshmen this season and Dantonio added that Brian Lewerke, who just finished his redshirt freshman season, will be the “guy to beat” at quarterback heading into next spring even after missing the last four games with a broken leg.
And even with all the losses, Dantonio sees the light at the end of the tunnel for a team that held a lead at some point in all 12 games.
“I think what you see is a group, you see resilience,” Dantonio said. “Nobody blew us out. Nobody shut it down and quit. We continued to play. So resiliency as an entire football team and I give credit to our senior group for that and our captains especially, because they maintained that aspect.
“I've seen different players elevate their play. Young freshmen, you see Donnie Corley making plays, could be a phenomenal player. You see Justin Layne, could be a phenomenal player. So you got young players, played nine true freshmen. That's more than we've ever played. You look out there and you see three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman playing at defensive line.”
He could have kept going. Young players were taking over late in the season at offensive line, as well as in the secondary.
Needless to say, their development is vital. That will continue through winter conditioning and into spring practice. In the meantime, Dantonio and his staff will work to close out the recruiting class that will sign in February, one that is ranked in the top 25 at this point from most services.
Then Dantonio will get back to the list.
He understands the frustration of fans, but he also made it clear that level is even higher inside the football offices.
“I think we're all much harder on ourselves than the outside people are,” he said. “It bothers me, bothers me that I'm not over there working on bowl games. It bothers me that I'm not sitting up here talking about somebody that we're playing. You go home at night during this week and you're like, ‘What am I doing home?’ That's how you feel.
“But I'm not embarrassed because embarrassment would be to me would be acknowledging that we didn't play hard and we didn't prepare. We prepared. We played hard. We competed.”
The key now is getting back to what Spartans fans had become accustomed to, and that is winning, not just competing.
To do that, Dantonio will go to work.
“I've taken the approach of hey, I'm a new coach coming in here, gonna fix the things that other guy did last year,” Dantonio said. “I'm going to take the approach that I'm going to get this fixed. And this will be fixed.”