Saturday, January 23, 2021

COLUMN: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State are doing a disservice to the past decade of program growth

November 10, 2019
Illinois celebrates the game-winning touchdown catch during the game against Illinois Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans fell to the Fighting Illini, 37-34.
Illinois celebrates the game-winning touchdown catch during the game against Illinois Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans fell to the Fighting Illini, 37-34. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

In between bites of my half-cooked press box pizza slice, listening to "Better Together", my favorite song on Luke Combs' new album and transcribing the audio of Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio trying to explain how his football team blew a 25-point lead during its 37-34 loss to Illinois Saturday afternoon, I came across a eye-opening tweet on my Twitter feed.

It came from former Spartan Lawrence Thomas.

"We fought too hard to get nationally known bruh," he Tweeted.

Thomas, a defensive lineman from 2012-2015, played at the peak of Dantonio's tenure in East Lansing. He won 38 games over four seasons. Add to that two Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, a Cotton Bowl win and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Oh yeah, and he never had a losing streak longer than two games.

Boy have things changed in the four years since Thomas and his class departed East Lansing. The look and feel around what Michigan State's football program is resembles more of what Spartan football was pre-Dantonio, and less of the national success Thomas played in during his tenure with the Spartans.

That is a disservice to everyone — Dantonio included — that brought Michigan State to the top of the mountain.

The past four seasons have been a shadow of what Dantonio built his success on. For the second time in four years, Michigan State has endured a four-game losing skid. In that same span Michigan State is now 15-18 in conference play. The Spartans only lost seven conference games, five of which came in 2012's 6-6 season, in the four years prior.

Michigan State looked, and played, outmatched against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State during its current losing streak. That wasn't the case for 30 minutes against Illinois. The Spartans were the aggressors. They controlled the line of scrimmage and dictated the tempo of the game.

All of that made Saturday's loss that much more head-scratching.

"Extremely disappointed, nobody's more disappointed than our players and coaches," Dantonio said following the game. "One of the tougher games we've experienced, certainly."

Not long ago losses like the one Michigan State suffered against the Illini didn't happen. Not when everything was going so right.

The Spartans brought back the neon jerseys, and touchdowns came with it. MSU gained over 300 yards in the first half, and at one point held a 28-3 lead. Young freshmen like Elijah Collins, who scored two touchdowns in the first half, and Tre Mosley, who scored his first touchdown in his first start, and veteran players like Cody White, who led Michigan State with 128 yards on seven catches, had the Spartan offense playing at a level it hadn't in — weeks? months?

But all of it came unraveled in a matter of hours.

It was a John L. Smith-esque collapse. And it should feel familiar, thinking back to a rainy night on September 24, 2006. The Spartans held a 17-point lead over Notre Dame during the monsoon that struck Spartan Stadium. The Irish outscored the Spartans 26-6 in the second half, 19-0 in the fourth quarter.

Saturday, the Illini outscored Michigan State 27-6 in the second half, 27-3 in the fourth quarter.

The Spartans had not one, not two, but maybe three or four chances to stop the bleeding during Illinois' improbable march. Or even before it started.

With MSU leading 28-3, and inside the Illini 10-yard line, Brian Lewerke looked to Mosley in the end zone. The ball tipped off of his hands and into the grasp of an Illini defender.

Then, out of halftime with a 28-10 lead, Michigan State drove down to the one-yard line, but had to settle for a field goal because Lewerke fell when an offensive lineman stepped on his foot.

Then, after Shakur Brown — who was beaten all night in coverage by Josh Imatorbhebhe —made amends for his errors by intercepting Brandon Peters in the end zone after Lewerke had fumbled a snap, Lewerke gave it right back, but with a larger casualty — a 76-yard pick six by Sydney Brown.

Then, instead of going for the jugular when they crossed midfield after the Illini missed a PAT, which would have tied the game, the Spartans settled for another field goal, opening the door for a game-winning touchdown.

The Illini gladly closed it with five seconds left when Peters connected with Daniel Barker for a game-winning touchdown.

Almost every step of the way, Michigan State's demise could have been avoided. Just as this disastrous season could have been as well. The Spartans had the pieces entering the year. A senior-led defense that ranked top-10 in the nation last season. A senior quarterback that at one point in his MSU career was being talked about as a potential Heisman dark horse.

But it was clear the Spartans didn't have the right coaches. That's been clear for four years now. And now, Dantonio may be part of that group as well.

When a reporter asked Dantonio what he would tell "students, (alumni) — some of them are unhappy about the way things are going — what the future would be like?"

He answered, if you would call it an answer: "Next question"

With every passing week, more questions than answers surround Dantonio, his future and what Spartan football will be beyond 2019.

It wasn't always like that. Not since Dantonio brought Michigan State onto a national stage it hadn't sniffed in decades. All of those wins, high poll rankings and trophies are now a distant past. The last four seasons have turned that era into a blip in MSU football history.

It's been an absolute gut-punch to everyone that had a role in.

Dantonio included.


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