John Niyo and Matt Charboneau take a look at the Spartans (4-4) and they preview the Michigan-Maryland game. The Detroit News
You know it’s a lame college football weekend when the marquee matchups are SMU-Memphis (seriously) and Michigan-Maryland (not so seriously). But hey, I dug deep and found one major positive: We don’t have to spend three-and-a-half hours watching Michigan State punt the ball.
The Spartans blessedly are on another bye, giving Mark Dantonio and his staff time to scout area playgrounds for a quarterback who can operate his vintage 1974 offense. It’s been a rough run for Michigan State and it got rougher Thursday when star linebacker Joe Bachie was declared ineligible by the Big Ten for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
That’s no joke, and if the appeal fails, Bachie is done at Michigan State. That’s sad, all the way around.
This is a joke: The Spartans haven’t enhanced their performance in quite a while, and the crisis is real.
There’s no looking away now. We — me, you, shouting bug-eyed TV types — spent so much time monitoring the travails of Michigan’s celebrity coach, we took our eyes off Michigan State’s understated legendary coach. For that, Dantonio should be grateful, because upon closer inspection, it’s a bigger mess in East Lansing than a White Castle bathroom at 2 a.m.
Michigan State’s season already was in smoldering ruins, to the point the black smoke in East Lansing was visible from the upper floors of the Renaissance Center. Dantonio spent 13 years building an undercover powerhouse, winning Big Ten titles and bowl games, even nearly beating Arizona State a couple times. When Jim Harbaugh came along and grabbed all the publicity, it had to chafe D’antoni, whose biggest legal concern was filing court orders to get the damn apostrophe off his name.
Shuffling the deck
Now Dantonio is drawing attention again, and he probably wishes it was as simple as mispronouncing his name. There have been signs, including the occasional 3-9 record, that shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll recall he attempted to fix his offense by retaining every member of his offensive staff but shifting their duties, and also ordering them to write 100 times on a chalkboard, “I will be better at thinking up different plays. I will be better at thinking up different plays.”
It was sheer stubbornness, and the shocking result is, the Spartans’ offense is even worse. Michigan State began the season ranked 18th in the country and now is 4-4, with three straight losses to top-10 teams. Was it too much to ask the Spartans to beat Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State? Yes it was. Was it too much to ask them to score more than two touchdowns in three games and not lose by an average margin of 27.6 points? No it was not.
Since beating Iowa to win the 2015 Big Ten championship, which seemingly cemented the Spartans as a lasting power, they’re 24-23. The public’s obsession over what Harbaugh does — or doesn’t do — at Michigan overshadowed what Dantonio stopped doing at Michigan State. Even his clever weather trick doesn’t work anymore, as Penn State slid to an easy 28-7 victory in the rain last week.
Harbaugh is good for business, for the media business, for the retro-eyewear business. He rolls his eyes at an esteemed columnist’s question and the Twitter machine whirs madly. He loses one little game to Wisconsin and critics suggest his key card to Schembechler Hall should be canceled. He wins one little game against Notre Dame and fans clap politely, then ask why he doesn’t try harder to beat Ohio State.
Dantonio, the winningest coach in program history, hasn’t faced that level of scrutiny, until now. He’s always been gruff in a firm, commanding kind of way, and if he called something a “dumb--- question,” it probably was. Now when he calls it a “dumb--- question” it’s more likely a clumsy attempt to change the narrative of a “dumb--- column.”
Can he still turn this around without becoming Mark L. Dantonio? Sure. Maybe. Probably not.
For many reasons, including off-the-field issues and pending lawsuits, Michigan State’s recruiting has slipped sharply. According to my addled sources, assistants now fill roster openings by posting flyers on grocery-store bulletin boards. So many Spartans have leapt into the transfer portal, the school is considering a satellite campus down there.
As always, you can’t discount Dantonio’s ability to bounce back with vengeance. Four games remain and three of the opponents — Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland — are weak. The other is Michigan, which likely will be a huge favorite, which means the underdog Spartans will have their standard even-money chance of pulling the upset.
But rivalry success — Dantonio is 8-4 against Michigan — doesn’t last forever, unless you’re talking about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. Harbaugh is 0-4 against the Buckeyes — perhaps you’ve heard! — but after trashing Notre Dame 45-14, he has a winning record (or .500) against every other regular opponent.
I don’t know if Dantonio will be done after this season, although if he is, I suspect it’ll be his choice. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but Michigan State isn’t exactly brimming with leaders these days. The school has an unknown Beekman as athletic director, a new president in place of the former president who’s awaiting trial, and a board of trustees that sets aside the first 15 minutes of every meeting to apply clown makeup.
Dantonio is an obstinate fella who once famously uttered about his rival, “Pride comes before the fall.” Seems like a strange strategy to me, but he appears determined to prove his point.
Michigan at Maryland: The Wolverines steamrolled Notre Dame but they’re still steamed about the worst pass interference call in modern football history. After reviewing the complaint, the Big Ten opted to reassign the ref to the NFL, where he’ll work exclusively on Green Bay games. At 6-2, Michigan is unofficially “back” for the ninth time under Harbaugh. Pick: Michigan 40-13
Georgia versus Florida (in Jacksonville): The loser in this showdown will be eliminated from playoff contention, leaving only seven SEC teams still alive. They call this game the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Around here, that’s known as “Cedar Village, East Lansing.” Pick: Florida 23-20
SMU at Memphis: Are you aware ESPN College GameDay will be in Memphis, one week after showing up unannounced in South Dakota? It seems like another reach, although SMU is 8-0 and ranked 15th and Memphis is 24th. Besides, where was ESPN supposed to go — Notre Dame? Hahaha. Pick: Memphis 48-41
Virginia Tech at Notre Dame: One year ago, the Irish accidentally slipped into the playoff. Now, Brian Kelly is back under scrutiny, although his team fought admirably in last week’s 14-45 loss, outscoring Michigan 7-0 in the final four minutes. Pick: Notre Dame 31-20