Michigan State has had enough success under Mark Dantonio that the Spartans have probably earned the benefit of the doubt — one terrible season doesn’t necessarily mean the program is in decline.
But the pressure is on to show 2016 was an aberration.
Michigan State staggered to a 3-9 finish this season, winning only one game in conference play. A year ago, the Spartans made it to the national semifinals after winning their second Big Ten title in three seasons, but they followed that up with one of the biggest collapses of any team in the country. Michigan State is missing out on a bowl for the first time in Dantonio’s 10 seasons at the helm.
"What I think that we need to do is take this opportunity. What I’ve always tried to do was that whatever situation was thrown at us, I’ve tried to see the positive in that situation and try to deal with that situation," Dantonio said after his team’s 45-12 loss at Penn State to end the season. "In this case, the positive is that we start early. We start discovering who we are, what we need to fix, who we’re recruiting, who’s coming in, and what we have to do. That all starts at an earlier time now."
Almost nothing went right for the Spartans this season. With Connor Cook in the NFL, Michigan State turned to fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor at quarterback, but the passing game never approached the level needed for the Spartans to beat quality opponents. Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke also played. Lewerke, a redshirt freshman, had what seemed like an opportunity to establish himself as the quarterback of the future, but he broke his leg in late October.
Defensively, Michigan State no longer resembled the aggressive, disruptive unit that could shut down other Big Ten teams when Pat Narduzzi was the coordinator. The Spartans managed only 11 sacks all season and weren’t great against the run, despite the presence of star defensive lineman Malik McDowell.
"Throughout the season, we’ve had our struggles, but a lot of times, they’re saying, `Michigan State’s so young. They’re so young. They’re so young,’" junior linebacker Chris Frey said Saturday. "Starting tomorrow, nobody’s young anymore. Guys have had a full season and a spring under their belt. They’re going into their second spring. Guys got to make that extra leap forward in their game. They got to learn to study film harder. They got to hit the weight room harder."
There were a couple bright spots for Michigan State. LJ Scott rushed for 994 yards as a sophomore, including 160 in a near-upset of Ohio State late in the season. Freshman receiver Donnie Corley made contributions both on offense and in the secondary and showed plenty of promise for the future.
After by far the worst season in Dantonio’s tenure, there are naturally some questions about what the coaching staff can do differently, but he gave no indication that anyone will be fired.
"We’ll look at what we do as a staff, but I’m not even considering letting any of our staff go," he said.
For the Spartans, 2015 was a glorious year, not just because they made it to college football’s four-team playoff, but because of the teams they had to outlast to get there — Jim Harbaugh and Michigan and Urban Meyer and Ohio State. This season, those two rivals left Michigan State behind, and it’s up to the Spartans to bounce back quickly in what’s clearly become a brutally difficult division.
This season was quite a wake-up call.
"I think guys are going to realize, "This is not who we are, and we don’t want this anymore,’" Frey said. "We’re playing a lot of great teams, and we just got to be better."