The MSU football team (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten) certainly looked as if it began to turn a corner at the end of the season in preparation for the next. A 49-0 shutout win over Rutgers showed that maybe MSU wasn’t as bad as it’s record indicated. A one point loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State University offered up some consolation –– MSU could hang with the good teams, but just couldn’t find the inches they desperately grasped for all year.
A trip to Happy Valley on Saturday, resulting in a 45-12 statement victory for Big Ten East champions Penn State, proved something else –– MSU ran out of gas.
“It was a disappointing outcome to a disappointing season,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said.
That about sums it up for MSU in a season that saw a large youth movement, a void in leadership and a number of injuries and distractions, whether be through key returners being lost for extended periods of time or two former players tragically losing their lives.
Time and time again this year, the Spartans simply couldn’t put the pieces together.Dantonio, despite his team turning in the worst winning percentage record at MSU since Muddy Waters 2-9 team in 1982, still thought his players competed until the final whistle in every game.
On the field, MSU led in every single game this year –– something only 14 other schools have done. MSU, along with the University of Mississippi, are the only two schools who have posted losing records after accomplishing that.
Now MSU looks to regroup and reload with the hope that it won’t get worse than 3-9. MSU has a strong amount of talent returning, but senior staples on offense and defense move on, and junior defensive lineman Malik McDowell will likely join them, skipping his senior year to head into the NFL Draft.
A Not so Happy Trip to the Valley
MSU looked as if they would upset Penn State after two quarters of play, leading 12-10 at the break on Saturday. MSU has four offensive possessions, all going over 10 plays and reaching the red zone. But, as earlier instances in the season displayed, MSU couldn’t capitalize enough, getting four field goals and failing to reach the end zone all four drives.
Penn State had a lot to play for, seeing as Ohio State beat U-M, opening the door for the Nittany Lions to swoop in and steal the Big Ten East crown with a win. They came out with a fiery passing attack in the second half, securing that berth and the Land Grant trophy for the first time since 2009.
MSU’s defense held Big Ten stud running back Saquon Barkley to just 14 yards on 12 carries, but that didn’t stop Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley from torching the Spartan secondary for 376 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State dominated the second half of football en route to a revenge blowout win.
“You know what they say about payback,” Dantonio said. “It was 55-16 last year. I guess they felt it. We have to make the play to stop them.”
The Spartans were looking for a springboard to next season –– a starting point for a rebuild and recovery for next season. After junior quarterback Damion Terry was forced to exit after a concussion in the second quarter, things took a sharp left turn for the Spartans, seeing their season tumble away in an embarrassing defeat.
MSU hasn’t had the most joyous times in Happy Valley since the rivalry began in 1993, losing eight of 10 contests at Beaver Stadium before today. It sits at nine of 11 now, as the Spartans kissed the Land Grant Trophy goodbye, completing the trifecta of losing all three of their rivalry trophies with Big Ten teams in one season.
Restocking the Talent Pool
MSU football will not have to replace as many key players as they did from last season, but some key areas will be losing contributors who had their best year as a senior, something Dantonio preaches at his program.
Offensively, Benny McGowan, Kodi Kieler and Brandon Clemons all leave MSU as seniors on the offensive line. Brian Allen returns and will be the veteran leader of an otherwise youthful frontline that showed progress towards the bad end of the year. Redshirt players like Brian’s brother, Matt, are likely to make an impact as well.
Someone will have to fill two key receiving slots, as wideout R.J. Shelton and tight end Josiah Price depart as well. Shelton reeled in a team high 789 yards and Price leaves being fourth all-time in MSU history in receiving touchdowns. A number of young receivers, including freshman Donnie Corley and Trishton Jackson, will see the field much more as MSU’s two leading receivers further their careers beyond MSU.
“I can’t be any more thankful for all Michigan State has done for me in my life,” Price said. “All the opportunities, all the great memories I’ve been able to make here at Michigan State. I’m just extremely grateful and thankful. It’s been an amazing ride, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Defensively, the loss of Riley Bullough stands out greatest, as he became the fourth member of the Bullough family to amass over 200 tackles in his Spartan playing career. Current junior linebackers Jon Reschke and Chris Frey will return, and one is likely to fill that spot.
“Being here these five years have been extremely special,” Bullough said. “Growing up I was a huge fan and this is my dream school. You know, to come here and win championships and be a captain and meet all these guys and have the experiences I have had, it means the world to me.”
The Spartans also lose secondary starters in cornerback Darian Hicks and safety Demetrious Cox. The development of wide receiver turned corner Justin Layne and safety Khari Willis could prove monumental for MSU as those young players look to fill in the missing pieces
A Program Reevaluation
Dantonio expressed that no coaching changes planned to be made despite questioning of play-calling from both the media and the fan base for the majority of the season.
As Dantonio and his staff look at this season’s film and determine the fixable culprits for this year’s terrible turnout, the players will already start preparing to flip the script of the 2016 season back to the winning way they have been accustomed to.
“In this case, the positive is that we start early,” Dantonio said. “We start discovering who we are, what we need to fix, who we’re recruiting, who’s coming in, and what we have to do. That all starts at an earlier time now. So we’re not going to take a month to figure out who we’re going to play or prepare for somebody that we’re going to play in January. I wish we could; but, this time will be spent reevaluating ourselves and looking at what we have to do to make things better and correct some issues.”
Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes had a saying that a team loses one game for every true freshman they play. Dantonio played nine this year, by far the most he has played in his tenure at MSU, and lost nine contests. With the young players getting more experience, they hold the key to improvement. For MSU, 2017 has already started.
“Nobody’s young anymore,” the soon-to-be senior linebacker Frey said. “Guys have had a full season and a spring under their belt. They’re going into their second spring. Guys gotta make that extra leap forward in their game. They got to learn to study film harder. They got to hit the weight room harder. They got to get stronger, and I think that’s going to happen.”