What Went Wrong? Looking Back at the 2009 Spartan Football Season

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When the Spartans went to Chicago for the Big Ten media days I was stunned when my colleagues had voted for the Spartans to finish third. I have been vocal that I thought they would finish fourth, but the optimism around the program was high. That is a credit to Mark Dantonio.


Mark Dantonio has done an excellent job at the helm of Spartan Football.  In 2010 expectations are set for a better than 6-6 year.  Photo courtesy of Starr Portice.

Mark Dantonio has done an excellent job at the helm of Spartan Football. In 2010 expectations are set for a better than 6-6 year. Photo courtesy of Starr Portice.

The Spartan Nation has some of the very best fans in the world. Through what has been a rough forty plus years, they have remained loyal and faithful. Having said that, I don’t think they realize sometimes the depth of the rebuilding project that Mark Dantonio was assigned when he came to MSU.


Since Duffy left MSU the Spartans have struggled. They had one Rose Bowl in that time, but even under George Perles the fans’ frustrations grew to a boiling point with mediocrity. Under Nick Saban, if you took a look, they had one good season. That was when he led the team to nine wins and bolted for LSU before the bowl. I give Nick the credit for what he also inherited, but let’s be truthful in our analysis.


Part of the frustration that the fans and the team felt this season was the fact that they overachieved in 2008. Something I have said repeatedly since then as regular readers could attest to. That leads to increased expectations. The fact that in year three of a major rebuilding project this team and this fan base could get frustrated is a testament to the man charged with rebuilding it, and the job he is doing.


Spartan Nation has reported in great detail that prior to his arrival, there were MULTIPLE coaches in the Detroit Public Schools that didn’t even want MSU on their campus. For Mark Dantonio to make three straight bowl games and to have not only healed, but developed tremendous and strong relationships there is simply amazing.


While none of us (including Coach Dantonio) was pleased with 6-7, realistically none of us expected ten wins. So what happened between 6-7 (the reality) and nine wins? What went wrong? Let’s take a look.


Mark Dantonio has said since he arrived that you will only be as good as your seniors. This senior class had some good kids, but there was not a lot of leadership in this class. When the Spartans gathered to vote captains, sophomore Kirk Cousins was elected. Kirk had a great season and proved by the end that he had earned that job.


With that being said, his election sent shock waves through several older members of this young team. Some felt like it should go to seniors, while others felt like freshman players shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. All of these sentiments were expressed to me from members of this senior class.


Again, Cousins proved to be BY FAR the most effective of the captains and worthy of the title. It doesn’t change that it frustrated some of the older players that were needed to lead and this led to immediate tension. One player told me, “How can a sophomore who hasn’t won his job get elected a captain?” I can tell you that Cousins was without any doubt the best captain this team had, but it doesn’t change that it created a rift between some older players and the majority, which were young.


In fairness, year three is a critical time. Some have pointed to what Saban and Bo Pelini have done in year three and are highly critical of Dantonio. Pelini inherited a team that Callahan had not done well with, but it wasn’t experiencing atrophy. Remember that he had been hired when they fired a ten win Solich. The frustration in Lincoln was that he had talent and wasn’t winning


Saban took over a team with a lot of talent that hadn’t done as well as it should have. He again proved that talent can make a good coach look better. Look at what Saban did at MSU with less than Big Ten talent? He coached one nine-win team and had two six and one seven win squads. Both Pelini and Saban have recruited well since and have had success, but Dantonio has had tremendous recruiting success also. The difference being he is being asked to race against men while starting farther back. It isn’t fair or accurate.


To judge Dantonio against those two isn’t germane. MSU was far from the condition those programs were in when those men took over and to be frank, MSU no longer held the national respect when a coach shows up in a young man’s home like those did when they took over.


Dantonio has NEVER thrown JLS under the bus. He has never ripped into MSU’s past forty years to try to defend himself. Frankly, his character wouldn’t allow him to do that. Instead, he keeps working hard and keeps his nose to the grindstone.


Now let’s look at some on field issues.


When this staff came to MSU the defense was horrific. They took immense leaps and bounds in year one and had a superb showing in the Champs Sports Bowl against Boston College and what is now an NFL superstar in Matt Ryan.


In year two, the defense didn’t take the leap that it did in year one (and that would have been hard to expect), but it did clearly improve. The team again played mistake free football and once again were overmatched in a bowl against the pre-season number one team and lost.


In year three, the defense took a step back. The job that Don Treadwell did with the offense considering what they had to do on the offensive line, running back and the quarterback was astounding. In a recent article at SpartanNation.com I recently credited his performance as the coach of the year. I took grief for that, but I don’t care. I carefully laid out my reasoning and if I do say so myself gave a good argument for my thought.


It was the defense that left people shaking their heads. There were lofty expectations on Chris Norman who in retrospect probably would have been better served with a red shirt. He will be a star long before his days at MSU are done, but he struggled adjusting, as most young men do, entering big time college football. Blake Treadwell was a star on the defensive line and the sky is the limit for that young man over the next three years.


The defensive line got a lot of sacks, but what most people don’t know is that Trevor Anderson struggled all season with injury. The Spartans simply didn’t have the depth to step up and replace him. They could have burned red shirts of young men who will play and play well next year, but Anderson was willing to keep fighting. It was his senior year. I talked with Anderson throughout the year and he asked me not to write or talk about it then.


Anderson won’t have his jersey retired, but every Spartan looking back on the season with the knowledge of his injury should thank him. Others, either because of youth and some because of a lack of talent, couldn’t replace him, but that should explain why at times Anderson struggled.


This staff made the decision when they could without burning a lot of red shirts to go young. Defensive end was one that they could scotch tape with Anderson, even hurt, and save some young men. 


That is not to say there weren’t some talented young men like Tyler Hoover who have bright futures that played, but Hoover had a learning curve also and will be a fine player. There was no one who was not red shirting that wasn’t at the place of Anderson yet, and he was injured.


The same can be said for Rocco Cironi. He missed the spring with an injury and he never fully recovered. He could have been replaced, but there was no one who could play at his level (even while injured), and although Henry Conway came on and could have stepped in, Rocco kept fighting so this staff wouldn’t have to burn a red shirt. 


Cironi and Anderson took a lot of grief from fans, and had people known that they were playing hurt and that their effort allowed the staff to red shirt some very talented young men. In 2013 the Spartans will have a lot of success. You will see some fifth year defensive ends and offensive tackles and I hope Anderson and Cironi are brought back to be honorary captains. Remember to thank them then.


This staff could have helped themselves playing some young men. They did when they could and not burn a red shirt. You saw young men give glimpses of what is to come. When they could, they went young and there was some residual tension from older players who felt left out. One older player told me, “I guess the John L. Smith players got forgotten.” I disagreed with him as several were playing, but it was his thoughts none-the-less.


We will talk in a moment about the defensive backfield, but let’s look at what was the worst part of the offense: the line.


The Spartans line was not good. In fact, when you look at what Kirk Cousins did this season in light of what he had with that line, it was even more amazing. In truth, the talk around the team was that the best offensive line on the team was on the scout side. Mark Dantonio is dead-set, as we have reported many times, against playing a true freshman on that line. He was able to use the proverbial scotch tape to avoid doing that.


Dan Roushar, the offensive line coach and the man we called early in 2009 “Mark Dantonio’s secret weapon,” earned every dime of his salary and probably a significant raise. Joel Foreman is certainly a rising star with NFL potential and walk on D.J. Young steadily improved, but we have already talked about the Cironi injury. Senior Joel Nitchman fought injuries and senior Brendon Moss at the start of camp was the backup left tackle to Cironi but ended up the starting RG, but still was prone to mistakes.


Again the OL will be much younger next season, but will actually be MUCH MORE athletic and even with youth and the growing pains they will experience, they are already more talented.


The defensive backfield is a head-scratcher. In 2008 the Spartans made the plays that this year they didn’t, plain and simple. That is why everyone, the staff, the fans, the media (myself included), was expecting this to be the best part of the team.


There were some critical points. One head coach, whom the Spartans played this season and I am a close friend with, assessed the Spartans defensive backfield this way to me, “When you watch the film I really don’t think it is coaching. They have their guys in the right spots. You see where guys have good technique and that goes to coaching. What really is troubling from a coach’s perspective is that they don’t play the ball well in the air. That isn’t coaching, that is instinct. Once they upgrade on talent, you can tell the coaching is there.”


I agree. The defensive backfield was not good. Chris L. Rucker made plays last season as the teams CLEAR best CB that he didn’t make this year. It certainly all doesn’t fall on Rucker, but again, we go back to the staff not wanting to burn red shirts. Let’s take a look at the Spartans depth chart against PSU. We use that game because it takes into account the last game prior to the suspensions. Both of the free safeties were fifth year seniors and three of the four corners were seniors. The strong safety was sophomore Trenton Robinson and he was improving at the end.


Coaches can teach technique and they can make the right calls, but frankly the Spartans simply had horrendous lack of Big Ten talent in the defensive backfield. When you watch the film you could see the right schemes, but guys would make wrong reads or simply not make a play.


For example, the Spartans struggle with the wheel route is infamous. The week before the Minnesota game they worked so hard in practice on that route specifically. When Minnesota went right at the Spartans and had success, what can the coaches do?


CB Dana Dixon red shirted as did S Denicos Allen and S Jairus Jones. All of them will play next year, but did the staff make the best choice red shirting them? Remember going into the season, you and I along with the rest of the Spartan Nation, thought this would be a strength. In 2013 we will learn if they made the right choice, but I think they did.


What went wrong, unlike the first two years of the Dantonio reign inside the Duffy Daugherty Building, the 2009 team didn’t overachieve. A lack of senior leadership certainly hurt as a young team searched for an identity.


I am in no way saying that there weren’t poor coaching decisions, but you can watch an NFL team or college team and see mistakes. I am not saying that there wasn’t things you can look back at and question. What I am saying is that in the course of a long season you can always do that.


The reality is the stability is back at MSU. Dantonio brought it. This team didn’t hit nine wins, but as the young players recruited for this system grow and older players move on you see what is coming. Thank God that after a six win year this program and this fan base are disappointed. I know that Dantonio was. That truly tells you what a remarkable job he has done when a few short years ago we were angry when this team didn’t achieve six wins. 


I also think that in that disappointment you have to temper it with realistic evaluation. I think it is very fair to say that the QB battle went on way too long. It shouldn’t have, but it wasn’t the reason this team won six games. At the end of the day, not burning red shirts when it was avoidable was much better for the long term than it was for 2010.


Had the defense overachieved like the offense, this team would have won nine games. Having said that, had the offense in 2007 overachieved like the defense, that team would have won nine games. What we have is a team in growth, a program being rebuilt. What went wrong? Forty years.


At the end of the day this program is on a solid foundation, it is strong and the right man is in the right spot. For anyone who will step back and think rationally rather than emotionally, they do not doubt that. People who demand an excellence that I am sure they don’t hold themselves to in their personal lives will never be convinced. 


Trevor Anderson said it best, “I would give anything to come back. I am on the inside and I see where they are going.” 


This team was four plays away from winning ten games. Four plays. Last year they were four plays away from having six wins. Last year we rejoiced this season we cried. Perspective tells us a more truthful story than emotion.

This article is reprinted from the January issue of Spartan Nation Magazine. If you are not a subscriber you should sign up today. The magazine is 100% free.