Niyo: Senior moments have not been good for Spartans

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing —Mark Dantonio didn’t wait for the end of last weekend’s game at Maryland to address Riley Bullough’s ejection or the flurry of personal fouls that ultimately led to his defensive captain’s departure barely 10 minutes into what would become Michigan State’s fifth consecutive loss.

Instead, Dantonio said he talked with Bullough at halftime, and it wasn’t so much a scolding as it was a survey.

“I talked to him and just asked him if he was OK,” Dantonio said.

It’s an open-ended question now, though, with the Spartans reeling — off to their worst Big Ten start since 1982 — and their leaders lurching as a season spins out of control.

Because while there’s no denying Bullough’s “uncommon” play cost his team — “I don’t think he tried to hit the guy and intentionally be thrown out of the game, that’s craziness,” Dantonio said Tuesday — he had plenty of company.

MSU freshmen green but not alone in culpability

The coach’s own reckless abandon on the road — including that fake field goal attempt before halftime — was probably as egregious as any flag Bullough drew.

But with the coach digging in his heels again Tuesday in defense of his staff — “I’m going to have a great deal of loyalty for our coaches because I know what’s going on, on the inside,” Dantonio said — there was one other important admission from the podium.

It came not long after Dantonio reminded everyone about the impromptu youth movement that has taken hold with his team in the grips of a miserable losing skid. In all, the Spartans have played nine true freshmen this season, including a half-dozen on defense.

“As crazy as it sounds, not one of our captains — elected captains on our football team — was playing after midway through the second quarter (against Maryland,)” Dantonio noted.

Playing hard

And when it was Bullough’s turn on the dais, joined by fellow seniors Josiah Price and R.J. Shelton, they all acknowledged they’re part of the problem.

And that they’ll have to be part of the solution, if there’s one to be found, beginning Saturday as a heavy underdog against Michigan.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s gone wrong, and that’s kind of what’s difficult, I think, for me, because I feel like all the guys on our team are playing hard,” said Bullough, a fifth-year senior captain along with quarterback Tyler O’Connor and safety Demetrious Cox. “The effort is there — it’s just the little things here and there that just keep happening that are making us lose games. But our young guys understand what’s at stake, so they’ll be ready to play.

“And I think it’s also important that our older guys need to start playing their best football, me included.”

Dantonio was asked about that directly after the loss, and he answered diplomatically.

“I’m not going to sit here and say our seniors aren’t very good players,” he said, “because we have some very good players in our senior class.”

But unsolicited Tuesday, Price referenced one of Dantonio’s program mantras, one the coach had reiterated before this season began.

“Coach D always says seniors have to have their best seasons here at Michigan State, and I think that would help out a lot with everything we’ve got going on here, if all our seniors really start playing the best football of their career and really step it up a notch,” Price said. “Because we aren’t used to playing nine freshmen in a season. That’s not a common theme at Michigan State. So now that we’re counting on some of those younger guys, we’ve got to help bring them along and carry them along.”

Victory for MSU? Spartan seniors say it’s no pipe dream

Or at least carry their own weight. In many respects, it’s far too late for that. And the fact the freshmen are even playing only confirms that.

Bullough’s ejection prompted the coaching staff to burn Joe Bachie’s redshirt, while injuries in the secondary — and maybe a blown coverage as well, though Dantonio insisted otherwise — spurred a similar move with safety Kenney Lyke.

“Do I have my moments where I go home and lay in bed and say, ‘Huh, three true freshmen in the secondary and a sophomore and a redshirt freshman?’ ” Dantonio said Tuesday, forcing a smile. “Yeah, I’ve got some moments like that.”

No breakout stars

But just the same, he hasn’t gotten nearly enough of the senior moments that allowed him to rest easier in recent years. Think of Tony Lippett emerging as a two-way starter last season, or Bennie Fowler’s production finally catching up to his talent in a breakout senior campaign two years ago. Think of Jack Allen’s toughness and versatility on display last November, or Kyler Elsworth’s MVP finish to cap the Rose Bowl run in 2013.

In that respect, last weekend’s loss was just another frustrating reminder of what’s missing. It started with Bullough heading to the locker room after getting flagged three times in Michigan State’s first 11 defensive snaps. But there also were costly penalties and a crucial fumble from fifth-year senior wideout Monty Madaris, another blown coverage by Cox, who has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play all season, and even a dropped touchdown pass from Shelton, who otherwise had a strong showing.

There are other examples on both lines. (Miguel Machado was replaced at right tackle by true freshman Thiyo Lukusa.) But even before all this, there was the benching of O’Connor, whose early-season struggles proved to be a bit of foreshadowing for this team.

And now that things have “snowballed,” to use Bullough’s analogy Tuesday, the outlook is predictably gloomy.

“It’s not acceptable the way we’ve been playing, and we know that, we understand that,” Bullough said.

But can they change it? For the seniors, time is running out.