East Lansing — Let’s be clear about one thing — Mark Dantonio is not about to go all Lincoln Riley.
At Oklahoma, the second-year head coach just broomed Mike Stoops, the Sooners’ defensive coordinator, after giving up 48 points in a loss to Texas. It’s a loss that could cripple Oklahoma’s chances at reaching the College Football Playoff. And, as the defense continued to be a problem for the Sooners, Riley made the move just six games into the season.
There’s a vocal group of Michigan State fans out there that wish Dantonio would do the same thing with co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. It’s a wave that has been slow to build, but after last weekend’s loss to Northwestern when the Spartans had more than their share of chances to rally but failed spectacularly, it has grown immensely.
From message boards to talk radio, the blame is being aimed primarily at Warner, though offensive line coach Mark Staten has begun to be lumped in while there is at least a cursory nod to Michigan State’s substantial number of injuries and the role they have played.
But if Dantonio is willing to make changes, it won’t happen during the season. Instead, his approach is to play a support role while offering suggestions throughout the week.
“I'm going to try not to micromanage,” Dantonio said. “I'm going to try to empower our coaches to do their job and allow them to do their job with confidence. So, I'm not going to be in a threatening mode, I'm just not. I'm going to be who I am, I am going to allow them to do their work and believe in them and push it forward. That's what I've done. Served us well.”
It has served Michigan State well, as Dantonio has taken the Spartans program from also-rans to perennial contenders in the Big Ten. During that time, there have been record-setting seasons, including 2014 when the offense established numerous program records.
Those teams, Staten pointed out this week, were led by essentially the same coaching staff, including Warner as the primary play-caller.
“It's the same guy, who had a record-breaking offense in 2014, same guy that called those,” Staten said. “I mean we beat everyone in '13, everybody in the Big Ten — only team ever to do it — by 10 points or more. That can be very frustrating, but thankfully this team and you've heard it before, and it's not just lip service, it's a very tight-knit group from the head man down to our custodians who come in in the evening. I mean that's just the way this place feels.
“So, we know that we're going to put our foot in the dirt and we're going to drive forward.”
However, none of that changes the fact the Spartans rank this season near the bottom of the conference in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense while junior quarterback Brian Lewerke has turned the ball over eight times in just five games.
Turning it around before this Saturday’s trip to No. 8 Penn State is a tough ask, but attempting to do so is an issue with many layers, one of the most significant being the fact the Spartans simply aren’t healthy, especially along the offensive line. On a regular basis, the front five is getting no push making picking up a yard difficult.
Left tackle Cole Chewins is finally near 100 percent, but left guard David Beedle is now out a month and right guard Kevin Jarvis is questionable with an ankle injury
“I would say a lot is put on us,” sophomore center Matt Allen said. “We’ve really been trying to demand execution and playing physical in practice and being able to do that same thing on Saturday. Sometimes there have been plays where one guy messes up and it screws up the whole play. Other times, like when Felton Davis goes (48) yards down the field for a touchdown. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing it more on every play and not just certain plays.”
To this point, though, it has been just on certain plays, making it difficult to have the balanced offense Dantonio wants. Most importantly, with a team that’s averaging just 123 yards a game on the ground and plenty of that coming from receivers or quarterback scrambles, the old ways aren’t working.
The old way is running the ball first and throwing from there. However, that’s been a recipe for failure as the Spartans don’t have a single running back averaging 4 yards a carry.
The logical next move would be to adjust the play-calling, though Lewerke has struggled and the receiving corps has been hit with injuries, as well, with Cody White (hand) out indefinitely and Darrell Stewart slowed by an ankle injury. Dantonio sounds open to tweaks, but the premise of the offense won’t change.
“We have a lot of concepts that we can use and we can pare down those concepts and create different things formationally,” Dantonio said. “Everybody can change things as they go. They can use different formations, different concepts until you find the right one I guess that fits your personnel as best you can.
“So, we'll continue moving in that direction, and keep pounding the rock. We'll keep working at it. The formula for success here has been: If you can run it 40 times — I don't care if you get 120 yards or 130 yards or 140 yards or 240 — if you can run it 40 times, you've got a pretty good chance to win. That's been our success.”
Changes could come, but significant ones probably won’t be revealed this week or even this season. It’s clear, Dantonio has a system he believes in. Criticize him for not adapting if you choose, but understand, he and his staff believe the system works, they just need to be better at it.
“You're trying to balance things a little bit but we'll be all right,” Dantonio said. “I have confidence in our football team and I have confidence in our drive and who we are as individuals and how we approach things.”