There were calls Thursday to a couple of national college football acquaintances, well-known names, and it wasn’t fair to have put them on short notice that someone wanted to speak about Michigan State when they were in the middle of flights and headed for 9 p.m. hotel check-ins.
It might not have mattered. There were chats Thursday with other men and friends who know football and who for decades have had season tickets at Spartan Stadium. They winced and agreed last Saturday’s exhibition against Northwestern might have been the worst Michigan State game they had seen since the Muddy Waters era. And if you missed those three seasons, from 1980-82, say an immediate prayer of thanks.
No one argued that football’s common culprit, broken bodies, is most of MSU’s problem in 2018, particularly with respect to an offensive line that, as they say, has truly been offensive.
But there seems, to nearly everyone who’s been trying to figure out why Mark Dantonio’s team is 3-2, and an unimpressive 3-2 mind you, that something else is going on as the Spartans prepare for what could be a Saturday annihilation at Penn State.
A common thread is that Dantonio’s staff perhaps needs a shake-up. Of course, no one thought coordinators and assistants were leaking Pennzoil last season when the Spartans were 10-3. And not a lot of grievances were filed against assistants or the head coach during a 2013-15 run when Dantonio’s lads went 36-5.
But there were enough down-and-yardage second-guesses Saturday to remind everyone why offensive coordinator Dave Warner again is about as popular with the crowd as a Go Blue bumper sticker, which was his status two years ago when State wheezed home with a 3-9 record and a bowl-game seat on the living-room sofa.
Dantonio long has cheered the “continuity” that has been a kind of spinnaker on the Good Ship Dantonio. If you’re winning nearly 70 percent of your games, as Dantonio has been doing since he came aboard 12 years ago, that relatively intact collection of coaches can be considered a plus.
Unless, of course, your offense has turned to mush and for the second time in three years a season that mystifies more than satisfies is now staring hard at the Spartans.
Shortage of stars
A different thought has been sticking hard, for too many years, in one person’s mind. And, as with the assistant coaches, this debate is situational.
It has to do with MSU’s recruiting.
It’s fine, overall, and has been. It is not, except in occasional past years, on the level of Michigan’s or Ohio State’s, or now Penn State’s. And even with the Jack Conklin-Jack Allen tandem from a few seasons ago still fresh in mind, State’s offensive linemen haven’t always been as trench-sturdy as, say, Wisconsin with its annual collection of brutes who look as if the trade name CATERPILLAR should be stenciled on their uniforms.
MSU’s and Dantonio’s stage trick has been to take three-star talent, or less, and transform it into the kinds of teams that could win 11 or 12 games a year. Four-stars find their way to East Lansing. But the proud secret to MSU’s sauce has been to take kids dissed by too many recruiting agencies and turn them into Big Ten big-guns.
This is great. Except, of course, when you can’t block Arizona State, when Central Michigan gives you a game, when Northwestern runs over you, and when during yet another season tight end appears not to be part of your offense.
It’s still about personnel. A team unable to run the football has problems up front that can correctly be dropped at the door of the trainer’s room. But those issues can also stem from too little horsepower even before knees and ankles and shoulders were damaged.
Warner might have his culpability here. Dantonio might bear even more of the burden when he’s in charge and Warner has been handed the offense’s keys.
But this back-and-forth focus on coaches contains its own self-refuting premise: Coaches who are brilliant one year somehow a few months later lose the Xs and Os side of their football brains.
That doesn’t make sense. Not when a team last year was 10-3 and not when those 2013-15 maulers were 36-5.
It leaves the Spartans, it seems, with the usual philosophy that can be helpful when what was supposed to have been another grand season of football in East Lansing looks as if it will finish a bit underweight.
Just get to the bowl game, baby.
That should be the fans’ mantra. Not only this season, but truthfully, every year. It’s so difficult to win in college football, much less to win on a level that fans find gratifying.
Numbers tend to confirm not everyone can triumph. If it’s a down year in East Lansing, and this absolutely has the makings of an autumn that can go from disappointing to becoming a plunge down an elevator shaft, it might be time to focus on getting some people healthy and grabbing some games the Spartans can yet manage.
It might be seven, it might be six. But get that bowl game locked in. And then trust a guy — and even his assistants — who have won 100 football games in 12 seasons to perhaps next autumn spin another of those double-digit victory seasons that so often have followed the occasional blown-tire year.
Dantonio carries enough street cred to have earned some allowance there. Spartans fans, at least when they’re not fixated on Warner, might grudgingly agree.