Niyo: Spartans in state of serious uncertainty

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — They are letters of resignation, in many respects. And for a football coach, they are an admission not of guilt, but of uncertainty, which is an indictment of another kind.

When you see “OR” littering the depth chart the way it does for Michigan State this week — eight times among the would-be starters on offense alone — that tells you plenty about where the Spartans are at the moment, off to their worst start (2-3) since 2009, the only losing season in Mark Dantonio’s tenure.

And when you see it twice at quarterback — Tyler O’Connor OR Damion Terry OR Brian Lewerke will be the starter Saturday against Northwestern — that hints a bit ominously about where they might be headed.

“Not every job is up for grabs, no,” Dantonio explained.

But the message for some of those that are is pretty simple. You’ve got to play better.

And, clearly, that’s the case at quarterback, where O’Connor, the fifth-year senior who won the No. 1 job in camp, was yanked after three quarters in last weekend’s 31-14 loss to BYU and replaced with Terry, the junior whose first drive ended in an interception.

Dantonio called that “change for the sake of change” afterward — Terry was as surprised as anyone, saying, “I was shocked” to get the call — but Tuesday, the coach called it an open competition for the No. 1 job, and said “it’s that way because I think there’s a necessary step to take.”

As for which direction he’s leaning, Dantonio didn’t offer many hints. He’d probably prefer to stick with O’Connor for now — “I don’t like setting a guy down that’s a captain, that’s for sure,” he admitted — but his inability to get the ball downfield has been problematic. Terry, meanwhile, hasn’t shown much consistency in his limited opportunities. And as for Lewerke, the redshirt freshman who saw mop-up duty against Wisconsin a few weeks ago, “I think to exclude him from this right now would be wrong.”

“As difficult as that is to say, that’s where we’re at, because I think a case can be made for all three of those guys,” Dantonio said. “We may use two, we may use one. I don’t think we’ll use three, but who knows?”

Season on the brink

Everyone knows that’s not what a coach wants to hear himself say in mid-October, especially when the indecision is rooted in performance rather than injury. But that’s where they’re at, all right, and while Dantonio opted to keep the quarterback off-limits to the media this week — “I don’t think you guys need to pepper them with questions and go through all that stuff with them,” he said — there’s no hiding from the problem.

Having lost three in a row for the first time since 2009, and starting 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2007, the season is slipping away. And on the heels of last year’s national playoff berth, the Spartans may find themselves scrambling just to make a bowl in November. They can’t allow that to happen, if they can help it.

Riley Bullough’s absence continues to haunt MSU’s ‘D’

Some of this can’t be helped, of course. You don’t lose three starters from your offensive line to the NFL — not to mention a quarterback who owns most of the school’s passing records — and expect things to keep humming along as if nothing had changed. Maybe at Alabama you can, but Michigan State is not Alabama, a point driven home again last winter even before the winningest class in Spartans football history exited the football building.

Ditto the other side of the line, where Michigan State’s once-dominant front — also hit hard by attrition — now is more of a façade, credited with only five sacks all season, the fewest of any Big Ten team.

“That’s something that’s got to get fixed,” Dantonio agreed, “and there’s got to be more production, period.”

A group effort

But as he talked Tuesday, the questions — and the coach — kept coming back to the offense, which ranks 12th in the conference in scoring, 10th in total yardagem, and 11th in rushing.

“We just lack consistency,” Dantonio said, and he rattled off a litany of reasons — protection, route-running, quarterback play, and, yes, the play-calling, though he quickly dismissed any suggestion about a change in duties for co-coordinator Dave Warner, who had another bad day against BYU.

“Absolutely not,” Dantonio said, when asked about that possibility. “Our football program has been in place for quite some time here. We’ve been successful. ...

“The natural thing is for everybody to always start to say, ‘It’s this guy’s fault’ or ‘It’s that guy’s fault.’ (But) it’s all-inclusive. The first person that needs to take that responsibility is me. That’s where it stands.”

But where it stands everywhere else is much less certain. And while the mandate hasn’t changed — “We’ve got to get things fixed,” Dantonio insisted — the answers remain ambiguous for now, as the depth chart indicates.

OR? Or else what? @JohnNiyo