This is not the kind of start that the Green and White faithful had in mind.
East Lansing is in a frenzy after Michigan State lost to Indiana 24-21 in overtime last week. It is completely understandable why several people are panicking, with the stalling offense and a perplexed defense guiding the Spartans to a winless conference record.
But the fanbase in general needs to take a deep breath and become more patient by giving Michigan State time to build gradual momentum with recruiting. Dantonio is the best in the business in developing talent by taking two and three star recruits and transforming them into four and five star caliber players by the end of their career.
MSU is no powerhouse like Alabama or Ohio State, so fans need to lower expectations and standards to a realistic level and accept a decent season once in awhile.
Many critics and fans alike saw this type of year taking place in the foreseeable future for the Spartans. And one of the biggest reasons why is because of MSU losing their biggest impact players. After having monster senior seasons last year, Connor Cook, Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun departed for the NFL Draft.
Those Spartans were undoubtedly some of the biggest playmakers in recent memory since they all peaked during the 2013 season. They have all been excelling early in their career and closed out their time in East Lansing in style.
Cook, the winningest quarterback in school history, holds school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Conklin didn’t surrender his first sack until his junior year, as he surged to become one of the all-time greatest offensive tackles at MSU. Calhoun’s 27 career sacks, ranks him among the elite defensive ends to ever wear green and white.
Losing those irreplaceable leaders from last year’s team left some gaping voids at many marquee positions, especially at quarterback. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor had big shoes to fill in Cook’s absence, while Brian Allen and Kodi Kieler were relied on to keep the offensive line humming along. Malik McDowell and Demetrius Cooper were expected to lead the charge and take over for the NFL bound senior trio of Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath.
All of these replacements have done a fine job respectively, but it’s the fact that MSU is lacking bulky depth and consistency at these pivotal units. If Conklin was having a rough outing, Jack Allen and Donovan Clark would pick up the slack. Or if Calhoun was held occupied, Thomas and Heath among others would get the job done. The 2016 edition of Michigan State Football, however, lacks this particular aspect.
When McDowell is getting doubled team at the line of scrimmage, Cooper along with Kevin Williams and Evan Jones exhibit their streaky play as they struggle to embrace their starting role. They are unable to deliver in the clutch as they can’t make a crucial play that MSU desperately needs. The only player other than McDowell to demonstrate his playmaking capabilities is Raequan William, but he is unfortunately out with an injury.
The offensive line, with the exception of Allen and Kieler, has been bullied around all year long by drawing in many penalties. Newcomers like Benny McGowan and Miguel Machado are also missing key blocks due to bad timing because of miscommunication.
These downfalls are inevitable every now and then due to losing significant veterans and integrating younger players into the starting lineup. It’s all about adjusting and sliding into the system for the underclassmen. And it’s a longer process than coach Mark Dantonio and his staff anticipated.
It also doesn’t help that the offense has not established any consistent groove because of the predictable play calling as well as a widespread of uncharacteristic penalties and turnovers becoming a reoccurring theme.
Michigan State has committed at least one turnover every game while grasping double digit penalty calls with at least 98 penalty yards in two of MSU’s four games this year. These issues are coherent and link to with the Spartans youth and inexperience.
Aside from 2016, given all the recent glory with the Kirk Cousins (2008-2011) and Connor Cook (2012-2015) eras, it goes to show how spoiled Spartan Nation has become by responding to an overall 2-2 mark. Therefore, fans and students alike face the scary, yet very realistic question: How can a program who has tallied double digit wins in five of the last six seasons, claimed a 32-4 regular season record the past three years, captured two of the last three Big Ten Championships and punch their ticket to the 2016 College Football Playoff for the first time in MSU history, all of a sudden fall off the map in just four games into the season?
It may be difficult for many Spartan fans to try to comprehend and wrap their head around this question. But the fact of the matter is, their poor performance and execution is indicated by their mediocre .500 record. This is a broken football team right now, but it’s not broken beyond repair. Regardless of the outcome of games, Michigan State still has plenty of promise and potential on both sides of the ball, most notably at running back, wide receiver and linebacker that will give this program a giant boost in the next few years to come.
LJ Scott has Le’Veon Bell like qualities, and backup Gerald Holmes is always utilizing his power and size to keep on trucking forward. The true freshman sensation Donnie Corley has emerged as the future face of the MSU aerial attack, while veterans R.J. Shelton and Josiah Price haven’t missed a beat with their versatility.
The linebackers run five deep with a bunch of different skillsets to offer. Riley Bullough has a nose for the football, Chris Frey is an effective pass rusher and Jon Reschke wreaks havoc in the backfield. Furthermore, Andrew Dowell and Ed Davis who are two of the most complete players with their ability to tackle, shoot the gap and force turnovers.
The best part about the talent at those positions, is the fact that most of them are returning for the 2017 season. They are the future stars that have the tools to catapult MSU to the top of the Big Ten and maybe even return to playoff contention.
Several Spartan seniors like Shelton, Bullough and Demetrious Cox, who have experienced a tremendous amount of success throughout their careers, finally know what it feels like to finish on the short end of the stick.
Similar to the 2013 and 2014 seasons, MSU faced early and severe adversity. But, they have more than enough time to flip this huge negative into a positive by the end of the 2016 campaign. Sometimes the tale of a team is not how they respond to wins, but rather how they respond to losses.
Michigan State showcased its strong resiliency after their 2013 loss to Notre Dame by marching to their first outright Big Ten title since 1987 and capturing the 100th Rose Bowl game over Stanford, 24-20. One year later, they were in a similar position after an embarrassing road shellacking to Oregon, yet finished the regular season 10-2 and accepted an invitation to the Cotton Bowl and went on to complete the comeback of the ages, besting Baylor 42-41.
Most of the College Football World believed that Michigan State would plummet downhill after those minor collapses. But anyone that knows the Spartans is aware that they play best when people count them out and with their back against the ball, using that chip on the shoulder mentality as well as any team could. That’s exactly what they did in 2013 and 2014, and what all the upperclassmen on those teams are striving to do in 2016 as well.
There is no better time for MSU to take full advantage of their underdog status than right now. They have been virtually eliminated from the 2017 CFP and their Back-to-Back Big Ten Championship motto is in major jeopardy, but not completely dissolved.
The tunnel of light is getting smaller and smaller for the Spartans, but they are beginning to transition to a highly regarded Big Ten and Playoff contender to an underdog. Time will tell if their main goals are still in reach. Their turnaround mission all starts against the BYU Cougars this Saturday.