Scope of the Michigan State Spartans: Same Ol’ Situation?
Scope of the Spartans: Same Ol’ Situation?
It’s pretty hard to “boy, who saw that coming,” about the 2019 Spartan Football season. As 2018 slogged on the writing wasn’t just on the wall about the direction the program was headed, it was going up in an all-caps, and ended up in boldfaced font. Numbers and results didn’t lie in 2018, and when Mark Dantonio rolled the dice by only shuffling around the coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball, many in the vast Spartan Nation began to fear the worst. Was Spartan Football setting up to slide back into their worst-old ways?
Speaking to this audience since 2009, I’ve learned a few things about you all. On a whole, you’re not afraid to rock out when it’s called for. Some of you may already have tickets for the surprising Motley Crue reunion that is part of a blockbuster rock and roll tour arriving at Comerica Park on August 20th. And if you’re going to see the Crue, Def Leppard, Joan Jett, and Poison, you’re going to hear a long list of well established pop-rock hits. Motley Crue has one that applies best to the current state of Michigan State Football, “Same Ol’ Situation.” That well crafted bluesy rocker gets people moving every night. It’s about as good as Motley Crue gets, and that’s what a nostalgia act should do. That’s not what Spartan Football should be trending towards as the calendar flips to the 2020 season.
Trying to fill this space without sounding like a broken record has become more difficult. At the end of 2018, we talked about how Spartan Football had become stubborn to a fault. To begin 2019 we talked about the importance of Quarterback production. Before the judgment games of this past October, we laid out how big the challenges would be in the running game before MSU got hammered a bunch in a five-game losing streak. And the last time we spoke about the scope of Spartan Football, we had already reached a real Red Flag stage. Before November even began you could not deny the cracks that stood out in the fine foundation Mark Dantonio built since arriving in the winter of 2006. There’s honestly not much more to say than we’ve already discussed a lot until something significant begins to change.
Instead of beating the main issues facing this program over the head, again and again, let’s consider what Nick Saban and Bill Belichick might think of Spartan Football right now, based on the fantastic HBO Documentary: “Belichick & Saban” The Art of Coaching” that recently debuted. As we transition from 2019 to the 2020 season, listening to what these two said about coaching and winning will do us all better right now than pulling out some ugly looking stats and coming up with unique angles about them. Rest assured you all get enough of that already, and you know well what happened to the 2019 team.
If you haven’t seen the Belichick and Saban documentary yet, it is about as good as you could hope. Fortunately, the filmmakers got a little more material than either coach probably wanted on the air. It only took about 75 seconds into their first meeting the last offseason for the two old friends to jump right into what schemes worked and what wrinkles stood out in 2019. It doesn’t take long to realize that these two coaches are a little bit different than their colleagues, like it or not. Neither is anywhere close to an average football coach of a high profile organization.
Belichick is famous for his overall ire of social media/social networking. He also seems to think there may be a little too much of the high tech-analytics driven work spilling into basic football analysis. He explained as much to Saban while recapping a flight home after a difficult loss. “A lot of times the coaches will be there, you know, on their computer and everything, and I’m like, “you know fellas, the reason why we got beat is because we can’t tackle…and we can’t force the run…all the rest of this is a bunch of garbage.” Saban nodded in agreement.
If you apply that concept to Spartan Football in 2019, it makes breaking down the state of this program pretty simple. They couldn’t compete upfront (at the line of scrimmage) with the better teams in the Big Ten this year. In fact, the gap between MSU and the best of the B1G East, plus Wisconsin, looked wider than it’s been for many years. If you can’t block well enough to run when you want to, you won’t be able to block well enough to run when you need too. No team will go far in the Big Ten East like that. As a result, another brutal year for MSU’s rushing attack played out, with MSU ranking 113 out of 130 Division 1 teams.
Though Elijah Collins got good reps for a Freshman, MSU somehow lost both Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson before the season was over. That was a sign of the damage done to the program’s foundation in recent years, and the eroding chemistry that the leadership of the program can deny all they want, but the players have been living through it. Collins experience can only help for 2020, but what if there is no new energy that arrives to coach and recruit for the Offensive Line this winter, but you get the feeling it will be at least another year before MSU can expect to compete with the top half of the best division in the sport.
Quarterback play at MSU has been a struggle for a couple of seasons in a row. Trot out all the career stats you want, but make sure you start with the one Mark Dantonio has said is the most important for Quarterbacks: their win-loss record. Brian Lewerke will, unfortunately, go down as the biggest talent wasted at that position for Spartan Football since Drew Stanton. Unlike Stanton, an NFL future doesn’t look very likely for Lewerke, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t benefit from hopefully a fresh start in an NFL camp. His coaching staff did him few favors in 2018 and 2019, and possibly some damage. They deserve the bulk of the blame for how his career played out for the reasons discussed at length around here for a pretty long time now.
Who takes the reins under center in 2020, who knows? But it won’t matter much against decent and better teams if the Quarterback doesn’t have enough time to get his feet set. “Offensive Football is execution and assignment football,” Belichick explained to Saban. “Know your job, carry out your assignment, and get it done.” By that standard, the 2018 and 2019 results sit primarily on the Spartan Coaching Staff, and the last 26 games of statistics and tape confirm how far the Spartan Offense has to go to live up to that standard again.
Belichick is crystal clear about the value of good coaching. “I tell our players all the time, good players can’t overcome bad coaching.” That was not a small statement from the most successful NFL coach in history, during the definitive documentary of his career to date. The Hoodie actually peeled back a massive curtain to shine a light on a lot of underperforming NFL and major College Football teams. Saban not only agreed, but he also reset the painful Kick-6 loss (that basically cinched the Rose Bowl for the 2013 Spartans too) and talked about the pain of letting his players down with subpar coaching. If you need a painful Spartan memory from the Saban era, maybe the ’97 loss at Purdue would fit.
“That’s always been one of the things that motivate me as a coach, and also makes me feel really, really bad, because sometimes you feel like you did a bad job as a coach that you didn’t put your players in the best position, or you got fooled on something or you weren’t prepared for something,” Saban said. And this is where it gets a bit tricky for Spartan Football because they don’t seem to completely realize or accept that such a concerning trend has developed in East Lansing.
Mark Dantonio and staff had some amazing years on the way to setting the all-time wins record at MSU. After getting bailed out by the best Quarterback in school history, and two all-time Special Teams plays in 2015, the coaching staff started to get a little more exposed in the Playoff shutout loss against Saban’s Alabama team. Spartan Nation is filled with pretty wise fans, and they realized early on that day that MSU had brought a rather ridiculous and stubborn strategy to score any points that day. In reality, MSU’s approach was a dream come true for Saban, who watched the Spartan Offense play right into the Tide’s hands and end up completely shut out. Alabama went on to win another National Championship the next game, and unfortunately for Spartan Football, that game was a sign of tough times to come.
In 2016 MSU got hit with the Badger Bomb at home, saw the Offense turn run-first stubborn, and felt the effects of a number of off-field distractions in that season gone wrong, in so many ways. Many 2016 problems had to do with coaching, and some were addressed before 2017. That year the Spartans caught fire thanks to the legs and timely passing of Brian Lewerke, and some pretty clutch plays across the field. The Offense looked to take flight again during an Overtime loss at Northwestern, and you started to see MSU do a better job of putting its playmakers in position to succeed again. After the Holiday Bowl blow win over a Top-20 Washington State, Spartan Football looked primed to compete at the top level of the sport again. It truly looked like the Spartan Offense had seen the light.
“I don’t care how good the players are, bad coaching…they can’t overcome it,” Belichick proclaimed, with the frustration of past seasons lost coming through his plodding vocal delivery. That’s what the Spartan Offense must be feeling these days, and given the results of the past two seasons, the entire football program should be feeling right now. Do you want it more sugar-coated than that? You might need to check out a football fairy tale. The Big Ten Conference is a non-fiction outfit.
This football program has a 25-24 record from the day they Badgers shocked MSU 30-6 at home, aka the Badger Bomb of 2016. Since then MSU’s struggles have looked far more like an issue of bad coaching than players that couldn’t compete for a Big Ten championship. In the next two or three years, however, you can expect the overall talent level to take a noticeable dip from where it was from 2015-2018 unless things somehow turn around quickly this fall. We should still see recruiting classes that feature some really good, but not the depth of championship-level talent MSU’s classes of the past were well stocked with. That’s a difficult truth you might not hear admitted in public too often for about Spartan Football, but it’s something Spartan Nation saw building for the past few seasons. Take a look back at the paragraph in a couple of years and see how it aged.
When I first got to campus in the late 90’s MSU was rolling out some kind of a “Campus 2020” campus master plan. It was a big project to come up with a vision for what the fine campus would look like a couple of decades later. There were ideas to line Shaw Lane with big trees, drawings to modernize the campus’ infrastructure, and looking back now, clear evidence that no one had any idea how the world changed in the coming digital age. Around the state of the art Duffy Daugherty Football Building and Clara Bell Smith Center connected to it, a sharp young Head Coach named Nick Saban had some big plans. He had the kind of plans MSU wasn’t quite ready for back then, but the vision and drive to ultimately make it happen. Is enough of that drive and vision inside of the MSU Football Headquarters today?
The university and the football program now sit on the edge of the 2020 school year, as this academic year will wrap up in less than four months. Michigan State University seems well-positioned to thrive and expand its reach as the original land grant institution of these United States, but the football program sure looks to be drifting backward these days. It appears that Mark Dantonio’s need to complete his circles as the program’s leader is slipping dangerously close to reviving those ancient tales of the “Same Old Spartans.” You know, the kind that Nick Saban had to battle through about 25 years ago, and Dantonio had to break through after arriving to restore Spartan Football in the late 2000s. Who could’ve imagined it could come back to this after the Badgers shocked the Spartan Nation in 2016, or even after they waxed Washington State for Dantonio’s win-100?
No one who loves Michigan State and Spartan Football wants to see this program take any more steps backward. Good luck finding someone who wants to place the bar for success at making a Bowl Game or being slightly better than a .500 team. You can’t say that would’ve been okay with Mark Dantonio five years ago, so what’s making it so digestible today? Is that a concession that Spartan Football is regressing back to its natural mean? Is that supposed to suggest that the true baseline for Michigan State Football is the kind of up and down, back and forth, frustration filled brand of play that fans and loyal supporters endured too much of from saying the late 80’s through the late ’00s?
Let’s be honest, Spartan Nation doesn’t want to hear that tune ever again. Motley Crue’s already got that covered. They’re going to rock out the “Same Ol’ Situation” all across football stadiums this year. Let them have that tune. They’re the ones that play it best, not Michigan State Football in the year 2020.
Want the latest breaking MSU news delivered straight to your email for FREE? Sign up for the DAILY Spartan Nation newsletter when you CLICK THE MAGAZINE ICON at the top left of the page or the FOLLOW button back on the main page. Don’t miss any of the latest up to the second updates on Michigan State Sports when you follow on Twitter @HondoCarpenter or @JPSpartan