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Niyo: Michigan State has another bye week to keep faithful from bailing

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Only the true believers are left at this point.

And judging by the huge swaths of empty bleachers that greeted Michigan State’s football team when the players came out of the tunnel after halftime Saturday at Spartan Stadium, there aren’t many left.

The weather was miserable, and a gloomy afternoon only got worse once the game against sixth-ranked Penn State kicked off.

The rains came, as predicted. The home team couldn’t score, as usual. And long before time officially expired on Michigan State’s 28-7 loss, the fans were leaving in droves, as you’d expect.

A lone fan sits in the empty student section as the rain continued throughout the 28-7 Penn State victory over Michigan State.

By the time the heaviest downpours arrived early in the fourth quarter, ABC play-by-play man Sean McDonough took note of some of the drenched and possibly delirious diehards still in the stands and borrowed a line from "Caddyshack," “I think of the words of the late, great Judge Smails right now: ‘Don’t these people have homes?’”

It was a fair question at that point. Certainly not a dumb-a-- one. No more so than the one head coach Mark Dantonio indignantly dismissed a couple weeks ago after his team was shut out in an embarrassing 38-0 loss at Wisconsin. The one about coaching continuity seemingly getting in the way of actual progress for this football program, and an offensive futility that now feels more like the rule than the exception in East Lansing.

Michigan State’s offense sure didn’t look any better in this game against another top-10 team. And coupled with a disastrous outing from Michigan State’s special-teams units Saturday, it dug an early hole that quickly drowned any upset hopes here against an undefeated Penn State team. Any hopes of being competitive, really.

So there was Dantonio when it was mercifully over,  standing in a soaked undershirt at another postgame  news conference, trying to sound upbeat about a team that hasn’t won a game since September and won’t get another chance to change that until the second week of November.

Life jackets anyone?

“You can’t abandon ship right now,” Dantonio said, referring to the people in his own locker room, mind you, not the ones who’d long ago exited the stadium. “You can’t do that. That does not work, I know that. You have to remain positive.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. And for one of the captains of this listing ship, it’s harder still after getting benched in the fourth quarter. Taken out of the game by a head coach who was admittedly searching for a spark, only to be reminded he’s holding a book of wet matches.

Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke struggled all afternoon to throw a water-logged football. But even when Dantonio pulled him early in the fourth quarter with his team down by three touchdowns, the results were the same. Worse, in fact, which is why Dantonio shuffled from backup Rocky Lombardi to third-stringer Theo Day and then back to Lewerke, who promptly fumbled his first snap after reentering the game. He’d go back to Lombardi once more on Michigan State’s final possession of the game, but that last just one play as Lombardi through an interception on first down.

Lewerke finished the game 16-of-34 for 165 yards and an interception, which isn’t all that surprising in conditions like this, especially when you’re forced to throw to a receiving corps that lost three of its top four options Saturday. C.J. Hayes was dressed but unavailable due to injury, and No. 1 target Darrell Stewart joined him on the sidelines in the first half. Laress Nelson also went down in the second half.

And with starting running back Elijah Collins also limping after rolling an ankle early in this one, the entire operation now feels as broken as it looks.

Anthony Williams’ 4-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter snapped a Michigan State scoring drought that lasted nearly nine full quarters — and 25 offensive possessions — dating back to the first half of the Oct. 5 loss at Ohio State. The Spartans’ opponents outscored them 83-0 in that stretch, which says plenty about just where this team really stands in the Big Ten pecking order.

So did the fact that almost the entire student section had emptied out at halftime Saturday, with the team trailing 21-0 and the real deluge yet to come.

Asked what the message will be now after this loss, a grim-faced Lewerke didn’t have much to offer, either.

“Kinda the same thing we said before this last bye week,” said Lewerke, whose completion rate is under 50 percent over the last four games. “But we’ve actually got to apply it this time. We’ve still got a month left of football and we’ve still got a lot of games to win hopefully. So, we’ve just gotta keep going.”


But where, exactly? The Spartans head into a second bye week in three weeks now knowing they still need to win two more games just to gain bowl eligibility. That shouldn’t be a problem with home dates against Illinois and Maryland remaining, plus a road trip to Rutgers.

There’s also that Nov. 16 trip to Ann Arbor on the schedule, though, and that’s probably the only game left that can salvage something for a team that began the season with much higher expectations than this.

“We’re 4-4, as tough as it is to say that,” Dantonio said. “I know everybody wants us to be 8-0 right now. But we’re 4-4.”

They’re also 24-22 the last four seasons, for what it’s worth. And if that’s not middling enough, how does this sound?

 “We are 4-4, and that’s the beauty of it, I guess, if there is any beauty there,” Dantonio said later, before he called it a night. “The beauty is that we’re not 2-7 — we’re 4-4.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. But on a day as ugly as this, there was almost no one left in the stadium to argue that point.


Twitter: @JohnNiyo