A year after making the Playoff, Michigan State might not even make a bowl game
“The ride up the mountain is very difficult at times, but the ride down can be very quick.”
When Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said that, he was searching for answers after the Spartans’ 31-14 loss at home to BYU. That’s one of the most durable lessons in college football. It is almost impossibly hard to summit college football’s mountaintop; staying is even harder.
Marveling at Dantonio’s accomplishments feels like a eulogy, like an acknowledgement that State’s run is over. That’s not the intention. But it’s still worth it to point out just how impressive his performance has been.
Dantonio inherited a directionless and scarred program. State had produced a winning record just twice in the seven seasons since Nick Saban had left for LSU. On two occasions under Bobby Williams, State was ranked in the preseason and finished with a losing record. John L. Smith replaced Williams and began 7-1, then went 15-25.
When Dantonio took over, State had finished ranked just once in 16 years. This is a proud program, one that got a later start than its Big Ten brethren — the school wasn’t accepted in until the late 1940s, once Chicago had bailed — but made up for lost time with vigor. The Spartans pulled off three top-five finishes under Biggie Munn, then four more with Duffy Daugherty.
State won nine games in Dantonio’s second season and 11 in his fourth. The Spartans finished in the top 15 in 2010-11, then third, fifth, and sixth from 2013-15. Urban Meyer is 55-4 at Ohio State, but Dantonio has won two of the last three Big Ten titles.
In nine years, Dantonio built Michigan State into one of the most trustworthy programs; five games into his 10th, the Spartans are 2-3.
They lost a total of five games from 2013-15, and now they’ve lost three in a row. Wisconsin and BYU outscored them 61-20 in East Lansing, and Indiana took them down in Bloomington.
Michigan State was in the College Football Playoff a year ago and currently ranks 60th in S&P+, behind teams like Troy (58th) and Georgia Southern (59th). Per S&P+ win probabilities, the Spartans currently have a 20 percent chance of reaching even 6-6. And that’s with preseason projections still playing a role in the ratings — based purely on 2016 performance, the Spartans would rank 84th. (Projections fall out of the rankings completely next week. Buckle up.)
Even if it’s temporary, this is a staggering stumble. And it happened almost overnight. Where has it gone the wrongest?
It obviously begins with offense. State ranks 75th in Off. S&P+ and barely cracked 200 yards against BYU on Saturday.
Starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor has thrown five interceptions and taken 10 sacks and was benched in the fourth quarter against BYU. Junior Damion Terry completed 6 of 10 passes and led the Spartans to a late touchdown. Dantonio is acknowledging changes could soon come, but it goes far beyond one position.
The run game is awful — 85th in Rushing S&P+, 101st in rushing success rate, only 18 rushes of 10-plus yards (119th) — and the line has been a sieve. Not only are the Spartans allowing a ton of sacks (88th in Adj. Sack Rate), they’re also letting defenders through on handoffs (72nd in stuff rate) and getting no push in short-yardage situations (102nd in power success rate).
Last year, State got by despite injuries and shuffling on the line; All-Americans Jack Allen and Jack Conklin each missed two games, as did all-conference Brian Allen. But with Conklin and Allen gone, along with three-year starting guard Donavon Clark, the line has suffered a dramatic drop off. In my far-too-optimistic 2016 preview, I said, “Last year's shuffling could be this year's savior.” I was incorrect.
I was even more incorrect about the other line, however. State’s defensive front has been a massive disappointment.
The warning signs were there. I acknowledged them and ignored them:
As the Spartans worked through some issues in the secondary, the line was the rock. And now five of last year's top seven tacklers on the line are gone.
Granted, the two returning are quite strong. Former blue-chipper Malik McDowell could very well end up an All-American in 2016, and end Demetrius Cooper was dynamite in a backup role.
Still, State played with a rotation of about seven to eight guys in 2015. Only two returnees are proven. Some combination of seniors Evan Jones and Kevin Williams (a Nebraska grad transfer), sophomores Enoch Smith Jr. and Robert Bowers, and a host of four-star redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will have to play at a high level. Players like tackles Raequan Williams and Kyonta Stallworth and ends Josh King and Auston Robertson could make an immediate difference.
Actually, change "could" to "must."
McDowell and Cooper have been OK. They’ve combined for five tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and six QB hurries. Raequan Williams has added a couple of sacks, and linebacker Chris Frey has contributed six hurries. But the line has had a lot more almosts than plays.
The State defense ranks 84th in Rushing S&P+, and an abysmal pass rush — 114th in Adj. Sack Rate, 114th in passing downs sack rate — has led to a complete inability to get off of the field. MSU failed to sack BYU’s Taysom Hill once and allowed him to complete 10 of 14 passes on passing downs.
BYU accomplished little in the big-play department, but the Spartans just couldn’t make stops. They forced turnovers on downs at the MSU 28 and 3 in the early going, but BYU scored on five consecutive drives beginning late in the first half. And they were the type of drives MSU is supposed to be inflicting: 13 plays for 73 yards, 13 plays for 70, eight for 82.
The most frightening part: This isn’t a young team.
O’Connor is a senior, one of nine who started on offense against BYU. Seniors make up three of State’s four leading receivers and four of five starters on this line. The defense featured four senior starters plus McDowell, a junior likely to go pro. Of the 44 names on the offensive and defensive two-deep, 26 are upperclassmen (15 on offense, 11 on defense).
Dantonio is still a good coach, and he does have a few exciting youngsters. Freshman Z-receiver Donnie Corley is averaging 8.2 yards per target as O’Connor’s most frequent option, and while sophomore back LJ Scott has struggled, we saw his potential at the end of last season. Raequan Williams is a redshirt freshman, and sophomore corners Vayante Copeland and Tyson Smith have combined to defense six passes.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Michigan State falling apart as a program, but this year’s struggles at quarterback and, particularly, in the trenches, might not be fixed immediately.
The Spartans might have to scuffle for a couple of years before they’re able to properly rebuild. And even then, they may have fallen far enough down the mountain that getting all the way back is hard to do.
College football always has a batch of teams that play superior football without top-10 recruiting classes. This is an interesting time for what we might have considered the best of that class. Stanford has lost its way offensively. Oregon has collapsed defensively. TCU has plenty of defensive issues. Baylor is undefeated for now but has failed off the field.
Michigan State was a standard bearer for this class of teams, and the Spartans are struggling mightily. Dantonio’s troops tend to peak in November, but if they wait that long to figure things out, they could find themselves losers of six in a row by then.