The Michigan State Spartans have struggled before. Even under Mark Dantonio, the program has had to battle through tough stretches and losing streaks.
But what’s going on now is something entirely different. This is hell.
The Spartans bumbled their way to a 19-16 win at home over the hapless Maryland Terrapins to reach bowl qualification. Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from the final regular season game of 2019 wasn’t earning a bowl bid–it is the ugly future ahead.
In a game with everything on the line, including the at least possibility of keeping their head coach’s job, MSU played completely flat. The offense, led by fifth-year senior and three-year starter Brian Lewerke, played about as poorly as possible. The defense, considered one of the best in the country just a few months ago, looked checked-out.
There is plenty of talent on both sides of the ball for Michigan State, but there is no longer much of a desire. That is the direct fault of Dantonio and his coaching staff. It’s been a tough season for MSU, often overmatched by their opponents, but the lack of fight has been dramatic. It appears that MSU football is doing as little as possible to just get by.
That feeling was proven even more evident in the second half of Saturday’s game. Lewerke had already thrown two interceptions without a touchdown and put together only 13 points against a Maryland defense that allowed 54 last week against Nebraska. The team needed a spark, it needed a kick–it needed a new quarterback.
There is no reason to believe that right now Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day or anyone else on the MSU depth chart is a better quarterback than Lewerke. But winning that one game was no longer the most important thing. Bringing in a new signal caller would have, if nothing else, given the team’s future quarterback a chance to play in a big moment. A chance to lead the team when it needed him the most. Instead, the decision was made to stick with Lewerke, a safe move that would keep the team afloat (this year) to simply check another box.
Dantonio has made the decision to pull a veteran quarterback before. In 2012, the head coach pulled junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who had started every game that year, in the middle of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl for Connor Cook.
Everyone remembers that Cook would lead the Spartans to a comeback victory in that game and go on to be the most successful quarterback for MSU in recent history. What they don’t remember is how poorly he played in that bowl game. Cook completed just 36 percent of his passes and averaged a little over four yards per attempt. But Cook’s stats that game didn’t matter, winning that game didn’t matter. The most important thing Dantonio did in that game was turn the page from one quarterback to another. He did what was best for the future of the team, without being overly concerned with immediate results in relatively meaningless games.
Four years later Dantonio tried to do the same thing. The Spartans were in the middle of the program’s worst year under Dantonio. While injuries played a role this time around, Dantonio still made the decision to turn the team over to a then-freshman Lewerke. Even after senior Tyler O’Conner got healthy and with junior Damion Terry available, Lewerke was clearly the best option for the future of the team. Turning to Lewerke didn’t result in wins, the team lost the two games where he played a crucial role. But it was more important in that moment to give the young quarterback an opportunity to grow into the position than anything else.
None of the other quarterbacks on this year’s team got that opportunity. They watched as the offense struggled through the second half, never reaching the end zone. That is what happens when a head coach becomes less concerned with the big picture and more concerned with playing it safe.
This could all change in whatever December bowl game the Spartans end up playing. Dantonio could have Lewerke on a short leash, turning to one of the younger players at first sign of lackluster play. He could even devise a game plan that saw multiple quarterbacks having a role. But does that sound like the current iteration of the head coach?
Dantonio is proving that his main concern is staying just afloat enough to get into next season. Unfortunately, both for him and the fan base, this style of coaching does nothing but hurt the future. Michigan State has already seen a decline in their recruiting and games like Saturday’s will do nothing to help. The gap between MSU and Ohio State is as wide as ever. But the truly scary thing is the growing gap between the Spartans and schools like Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan and even Minnesota. For that matter, what program looks healthier right now, Michigan State or Illinois?
When Dantonio came to East Lansing in 2007 it was an explosion of fresh air. Now, more than a decade later, things have gotten stale.
For the time being, Dantonio’s job is relatively safe. He “works” for an athletic director who has shown absolutely no sign of firing the head coach. So what that means for fans is simple–nothing this team says or does really matters.
Michigan State could go to a bowl game and win by 20, or lose by that same margin. They could lose 7-6 in a game that sets college football back 75 years. But it really doesn’t matter. This program is sputtering, going nowhere in a hurry, and no one seems to have any plan for that to change.
One of two things will eventually happen, either the noise will get too loud and Bill Beekman will have to find a way for Dantonio to step down. Or the Spartans will ride along with their head coach until he decides to retire, leaving whatever smoldering mess is left of the football program.
What Dantonio has done for Michigan State football can’t be overstated. But call him a casualty of his own success, because the bar has been raised and this version of Spartans football would embarrass the head coach from 10 years ago.