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Is slow and steady right for MSU football?

You have to figure that Mark Dantonio loves game day. To succeed as a big-time college football coach means you love putting your team to the test, seeing how your players respond to adversity, making the high-stress decisions that can tilt the outcome.

But he seldom looks like he’s having fun. Instead, he’s usually got that look—flinty, focused, irritable, whatever you want to call it. Ironically, though, that same frown and the steadiness it projects is giddying news to MSU fans after years of turmoil in the program.

And clearly it’s not just a facade. Dantonio has rebuilt MSU’s program slowly, steadily, solidly—fostering more consistent and fundamental play, and building a strong foundation through exceptional in-state (and Midwest) recruiting. At the same time, there are a couple of odd characteristics of Dantonio’s program that don’t fit the image.  One, obviously, manifested itself at Rather Hall: a large, organized group of ski-mask-wearing football players storming a residence hall to take on some frat guys is so uncharacteristic of a highly disciplined program as to be almost implausible.

The other oddities are visible on Saturdays. You expect a team with Dantonio’s personality to control the trenches, to win ugly, to run the ball and stop the run. Instead, State’s lines haven’t been consistently dominating at the point of attack on either side of the ball. What’s happened this year—a great passing attack combined with a sketchy defense and running game—is pretty much the anti-Perles. (And we’ll see what the passing game looks like in a bowl game with Blair White, Keshawn Martin and our various TEs.)

I’ve always figured the on-field issues would be resolved in a matter of time. It’s encouraging that some of our recent star recruits (OLs David Barrent and, more recently, Sklyer Schofner) are trenches guys.

The off-field stuff is more disturbing. I know that not every recruit is a model citizen, and I know that this, in fact, is a strong understatement. But this is a rare, dramatic case of football players gone wild. We’re talking about a group that includes upperclassmen, team leaders, guys who you’d think would be committed to the program, deciding to do whatever it is they did at Rather Hall. Together. Right after the football banquet. You’d think that the idea of upholding the program’s image, if not its values, would have occurred and been compelling to at least a couple of them. (Or, failing that, at least their scholarships and/or NFL prospects.)

We don’t know what happened yet—we may never know. But it will be interesting to see how Dantonio handles the fallout. Plenty of fans are calling for Dantonio to hand walking papers to all of these players. But in a similar situation last year, Dantonio gave a second chance to Glenn Winston. What’s interesting to me is that the steady, consistent thing to do would be to apply the same philosophy to first-time offenders now—again, assuming that what happened at Rather Hall was similar to what happened with the hockey guys last year.

Obviously the coach has already decided against a third chance in Winston’s case. We don’t know exactly what Roderick Jenrette’s situation was last year, so I don’t want to lump him in with Winston. But Jenrette is gone, too.

With the first-time offenders, though, it would surprise me if Dantonio changed his approach now just because fans are clamoring. In fact, I’d be disappointed, because I’d rather see him be consistent.

Mark Dantonio may deal with this situation differently, either because the situation itself is sufficiently different (and it may well be) or because he’s concerned that the program (its culture, perception or both) is in danger and therefore not in position to hand out second chances. I get that, and I’d be okay with it. But if he decides to give these guys another shot (and I’m talking about next year here, not the bowl game), then I’ll know MSU and Dantonio are keeping a steady course.

Which is a good thing.