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Niyo: Spartans' season ends on winning note, but Dantonio's program faces challenging future

John Niyo
The Detroit News

New York – It ended the way it needed to for Michigan State.

With confetti falling, even after a clumsy win. With players celebrating, even after a disappointing season. And with a head coach talking hopefully about the future, even if others don’t share the same vision.

But at least they all acknowledged something before it was over, as Michigan State’s 27-21 victory over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl on Friday capped a season of discontent for the Spartans and cast it all in a more positive light.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, right, speaks while holding the Pinstripe Bowl trophy.

As good as this felt Friday, with an offense finally finding a spark and a defense bowing its back, with young talent emerging in time to send Michigan State’s senior class out on a winning note, they all agreed they know better.

“This is good,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “But this program has higher expectations.”

If it does, we’re about to find out. Mark Dantonio’s decisions in the coming weeks will say a lot about what we can expect from his program going forward.

Michigan State’s head coach talked proudly Friday about the resolve his team showed in late November and December, rallying to earn bowl eligibility and then “finishing” with a victory over an eight-win ACC opponent in New York. But Dantonio also talked about how “the bar has been raised” after the way the Spartans began this last decade of football, and how seasons like this don't cut it anymore.

“To me, it's the basic minimum that you have to do,” he said. “That's where this program has come in the last decade. That's a good thing.”

It can be, but only if he’ll act more like it moving forward, making the hard decisions that Michigan State should expect from a coach who stands to earn nearly $9 million in a 13-month span.

Friday’s win was the 92nd for Michigan State since the start of the 2010 season, which ranks 13th-best in the country and third-best in the Big Ten over the last decade. But the Spartans are just 27-24 over the last four seasons, and with off-field issues still making headlines — Dantonio’s required to sit for a deposition in former recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell’s federal lawsuit in the coming weeks — that has only emboldened critics and fueled unrest among Michigan State’s fan base.

Against that backdrop, we finally heard from Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr., who took over as Michigan State’s president in August. The former president at Stony Brook University readily admits he’s a newcomer to Power 5 football and all that goes with it, for better and for worse. But he insists he is “excited about the future” of Michigan State’s program at a Pinstripe Bowl press conference a couple hours before Friday afternoon’s kickoff.

I'm not sure what else he could say in that moment, and he didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. But he did offer an endorsement for his head coach, citing Dantonio’s “track record” and his standing as the winningest football coach in school history.

“So I am pleased with the direction of the program overall,” Stanley said. “The season was not what we hoped for, there’s no question. But I think he is the right person to continue.”

Dantonio, for his part, was reading from the same script Friday night.

“I'm always excited about the future, to be honest with you,” he said, rather matter-of-factly. “I always look forward to the next challenge, next goal in your life, bringing people with you. I think that's something that you always do. I think that's a natural progression for every football coach or every CEO: What's next?”

And that’s the important question now, both for the CEO and the company. Football programs often are viewed as the “front porch” for a university, and this one clearly needs more than the fresh coat of paint it got last winter.

Presumably, Dantonio understands that after another season of mediocrity, at best. A season that ended with a half-empty stadium at home and a Dec. 27 bowl game on a baseball field in New York. But time will tell, and so will the decisions that should come fairly soon, as Dantonio makes his true intentions clear.

The 63-year-old said nearly six weeks ago that he was planning to return as head coach next season, and he’s given no indications he’s wavering on that plan. He’s due to receive a $4.3 million bonus in mid-January, and the Spartans’ newly-signed recruiting class is under the belief he’s sticking around.

But what about his assistant coaches? Most of the defensive staff figures to be back, but the offensive assistants had their contracts amended last offseason, and Dantonio has until March to decide whether those deals will be extended. 

Last winter’s decision to shuffle responsibilities with the same crew proved to be a mistake, obviously. Even Friday's offensive performance — including an MVP farewell by senior quarterback Brian Lewerke and nearly 500 total yards — left plenty to be desired. Yet continuity has long been Dantonio’s calling card, and it’s not at all clear he’s willing — or able — to make the kinds of changes that are necessary, infusing his staff with new ideas and new energy. So beyond a possible retirement from offensive line coach Jim Bollman, what else is in store?

There’s some talent returning on offense, but is Dantonio willing to loosen the reins and fully utilize it? Friday we saw more glimpses of what that might look like, and not just when Lewerke looked to junior receiver Cody White, who said after the game he hasn’t made a decision yet on possibly leaving school early for the NFL.

No, there was Trenton Gillison, a redshirt freshman, breaking free for a 64-yard gain on a seam route — the longest offensive play of the season. There was sophomore Jalen Nailor and freshman Tre Mosley making big third-down catches, and reminding Michigan State fans what they've been missing. There also was redshirt freshman Elijah Collins, who inexplicably started the season as a third-stringer but finished it just shy of a 1,000-yard season. 

That's a decent starting point for next season. But Dantonio's going to have to find a new starting quarterback, either from within or from the transfer portal. And then he's going to have to do what others have done, including his rival in Ann Arbor. Offenses rule the day in college football and Michigan State can't continue to pretend otherwise. Particularly with all the starters the Spartans are going to have to replace on defense, and a 2020 schedule that includes eight teams playing in bowl games to end this season.

When Dantonio was asked about the growth his first-year starters showed the last month or so, he referenced them using the time to "take a step back and say, ‘How can I get better?’" That's what he needs to do now. Frankly, that's what he better have done already.

Because Michigan State will need to take several steps forward if it wants to compete again for Big Ten championships. And as Simmons — a likely team captain next season — stood in the hallway inside Yankee Stadium, that was the message he wanted to deliver, too.

“I’m not done here,” he said. 

Assuming his coach isn't, either, they've all got plenty of work to do.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo