COLUMN: MSU football and a road not yet seen
Only two things have ever been consistent for MSU football in 2016: a lead then a loss. No matter what it tried, which personnel subbed in, which packages it dumbed down, its points would never be enough.
And perhaps that was the most stirring.
After 12 weeks of an unsettling season, the bottles will get their final pull. MSU football in 2016 was better with a pint of whiskey in a highball glass. Or a few pints.
Whatever dulled the shock more easily.
MSU was a shell of itself in the end, a program nowhere near the relevance it craved. It started the season with lofty expectations of going back-to-back in sport so unforgiving and so chaos-laden.
With the season finally ended, a blemish of the Mark Dantonio coaching tenure can finally be laid mercifully to rest. But while distractions are readily available for fans, Dantonio will have nine months to prove all over again that he can patch up a shaken program.
But the most dubious part of all was that for the first time in the tenure of Dantonio, his team was given the benefit of the doubt and it was squandered in a hotly stunning fashion each time.
At the beginning, MSU was No. 12 despite losing NFL talent in possibly the most consequential of position groups. The departure of two All-Americans in Jack Allen and Jack Conklin and the loss of NFL talent in Donavon Clark created a void on the offensive line that’s tough to fill with seniors backed up by young inexperienced talent.
Conklin, Allen and Clark masked any short comings of Connor Cook at quarterback, creating the space and time for Cook that wasn’t there for Tyler O’Connor. O’Connor never had the targets either.
This year had no Aaron Burbridge. R.J. Shelton, as talented as he is, was never going to be the acrobat in traffic with wonderful grabs. Donnie Corley is a superb talent capable of making Burbridge-esque plays, but he’s still underdeveloped.
The no-fly zone hangover hopefully has lifted and ought never to be uttered until the team starts finding meaningful interceptions and doesn’t open a chasm in the third level. It’s surprising only Notre Dame and Penn State decided to throw deep on a secondary that hasn’t been locked down since 2013.
While the secondary has always been suspect since that Rose Bowl season, MSU’s defense was hailed for the presence of a top linebacking corps and a questionable defensive line unit anchored by potential draft pick Malik McDowell.
That defense gave up 54 points to Northwestern and after McDowell left with an injury, it appeared to be better.
MSU was favored in six of its nine losses even as they dropped games like a toddler trying to hold a cinder block. When given benefit of the doubt, MSU crumbled time and again.
I will admit I fell trap to the good feelings generated after a road win at Notre Dame with a screaming headline about MSU forging an identity. I thought they had reached a turning point in the program, creating a smooth transition from sustainable success to continued contention.
But if I’ve learned anything about MSU through the years, the Spartans are best at wrecking things, theirs or others’ but mostly theirs.
Dantonio, however, has earned his keep on rebuilding MSU into a respectable program. This season may well end being a blip in a long career, but if it teaches them nothing and MSU shows little progress next year, it’ll be time to ask the serious questions.
Youth can no longer be an excuse and maybe the pain of one of the worst seasons in recent memory will transform them. Their step this year held little swagger and if they learn nothing, it might never again.
For now, MSU will have to lay low and forge a path over terrain it hasn’t seen in a decade.