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Matt Charboneau and John Niyo of The Detroit News talk about Michigan State's loss to Illinois on Saturday. The Detroit News

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East Lansing — The calendar keeps changing, but the results don’t. Neither do the answers, as Michigan State’s football freefall continues and Mark Dantonio’s open-ended question begins to sound like a rhetorical one.

"How strong are we?" That’s how Dantonio had framed what’s left of the Spartans season last week in practice. That was the motivational message he delivered to his players, day after day.

“Are we gonna back down and let our situation affect us or are we gonna rise up?” said senior quarterback Brian Lewerke, paraphrasing his head coach.

And for a half Saturday against Illinois, it seemed like Michigan State finally had found an answer. Maybe even one that would help salvage its season.

But then reality hit, the Spartans inexplicably blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead and, in a final scene that looked as surreal as it felt in a nearly half-empty Spartan Stadium, they watched in dismay as the Illini celebrated their largest comeback win in program history by hoisting head coach Lovie Smith on their shoulders.

“First time we’ve been in this situation,” chuckled Smith, whose team (6-4 overall, 4-3 Big Ten) is now bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014. “Natural emotion for young people, it’s good to see.”

Likewise, it’s impossible not to see what’s happening on the other side now, in what looks more and more like the end of an era.

Dantonio’s team lost its nerve once again Saturday, and now the anxiety over a season gone awry has been replaced by apathy. There were nearly 20,000 empty seats at Spartan Stadium for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff, and thousands more fans had exited before the Illini had completed their remarkable turnaround.

Asked later what he’d tell students and alumni upset by the way this season has unraveled — and to those wondering if it’s more a sign of things to come than an anomaly — Dantonio paused before replying tersely, “Next question.”

Fine, whatever. But that is the question that’s on everyone’s mind at the moment, at least for those of us outside the Michigan State locker room.

The wrong Lane

The Spartans are a .500 program since winning a Big Ten championship and earning a national playoff spot in 2015. They've lost a dozen home games the last four years, same as they did during John L. Smith's four-year tenure as head coach. And a roster that was built — or at least billed — to make another run as a league contender this season, with an experienced quarterback and a senior-laden defense, now seems destined for a 6-6 finish and the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

“I thought we were gonna win a Big Ten championship, for sure,” admitted defensive co-captain Raequan Williams, who bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season. “But sometimes life hits you with stuff like this. You gotta keep fighting.”

How much fight do they have left in them at this point, though?

“I don’t think any of my guys are numb to the pain,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “I mean, it hurts all of us. We were up (28-3) and they came all the way back and won, you know? We haven’t won a game since what, September 28? We wanted this game.”

You can’t always get what you want, though. It’d been 43 days since the Spartans held a lead, and after blowing this one — allowing four fourth-quarter touchdowns in an epic collapse — it’ll be at least seven more before they have another chance to end the drought.

And while the next one is the biggest one — the annual showdown with the Wolverines is set for high noon in Ann Arbor on Saturday — they have to know it’ll take more than a rivalry to get them over the hump.

“There’s gonna be tons of emotion, but can you focus on your job?” said senior safety David Dowell, who was victimized on Illinois’ final touchdown. “That’s something we haven’t done a very good job of.”

All season, that's been the case, whether you want to point to Dantonio's late-game meltdown against Arizona State or this latest defensive collapse Saturday. Quite frankly, the Spartans look like a team that's forgotten how to win at this stage.

And that's especially problematic for a team that’s now decimated by injuries, in addition to all the insults. Dantonio, who lost his team captain and defensive leader to a PED suspension earlier in the week, started four true freshmen on offense Saturday. Top cornerback Josiah Scott and tight end Matt Dotson both were unable to finish Saturday’s game, if you needed more reasons for pessimism heading into the Michigan game.

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Taking shots

Sure, Michigan State piled up 526 yards against the Illini, including 275 on the ground. But the Spartans also committed four turnovers, including Lewerke's brutal pick-6 late in the third quarter, one play after taking a knee to the back of his head. And we also watched ex-Wolverine Brandon Peters light up a flailing MSU secondary for a career-high 369 passing yards — that's the most for an opponent at MSU since 2007, and 215 of those yards came in the fourth quarter alone.

Complain about a couple late pass-interference calls if you want — and Dantonio half-heartedly did in defeat — but as Dowell noted afterward, “Those are plays you gotta make.” And right now, this team seems incapable of making the plays it used to in the clutch.

It was Williams a couple weeks ago who was reminding everyone who’d listen, “It can always get worse,” pointing to his own experience in Michigan State’s disastrous 3-9 season in 2016. And it was Williams again early Saturday evening, speaking rather matter-of-factly about how badly this campaign has turned.

The players heard the boos and the angry yelling as they made their way up the tunnel after this stunning loss. They’re not immune to any of this.

“But when everybody’s taking shots at you, how are you gonna take it?” Williams said. “People are gonna take shots because of what we put out there. You’ve got to own up to it.”

So does Dantonio, of course, even if he's the winningest coach in school history. The man responsible for setting the standard these Spartans now seem unable to reach.  And the most important question — the one only he can answer when this season is over, perhaps — is where do they go from here? Or more specifically, which way does he go?

Michigan State's recruiting has fallen off dramatically, a half-dozen players have entered the transfer portal this fall, and graduation will hit this roster hard after the season. 

No one’s under any illusions that a hand-picked athletic director, Bill Beekman, has the clout to force Dantonio’s hand on any decisions about his future — or that of his coaching staff — this winter. Same goes for Michigan State’s dysfunctional board of trustees, or a new university president who has far more pressing concerns than the football program right now.

But for a coach who built his reputation on that line, “Pride comes before the fall,” Dantonio has to see what's happening here. And pretty soon, by the time fall turns to winter in East Lansing, he'll need to have a better answer than he does right now.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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