This was supposed to be Mark Dantonio’s day, when he would become Michigan State’s all-time win leader and officially cement himself among the program’s great coaches. He’ll get that record soon enough, but this game did far more to damage his reputation than elevate it. And judging from the first three games of 2019, this season will damage his legacy far more than elevate it.
Cameras caught Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards gleefully doing the post game handshake thing, with an annoyed Dantonio wanting to crawl into a hole after Michigan State lost 10-7. (It was semi-reminiscent of another infamous post game handshake in Michigan, with then-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and then-Lions coach Jim Schwartz.)
Herm Edwards: “Mark, great game, your team played awesome.”
— Dana Scott (@iam_DanaScott) September 14, 2019
Penny for your thoughts, coach?
Dantonio apparently was steaming about the refs, and he had a legitimate beef. But he should have been thinking, “This one is on me.”
For one, he let the chaos of the final drive overwhelm him, which is surprising for a veteran, accomplished coach. There was a miscommunication on the final play. Should Michigan State attempt a game-tying field goal, or should it try to run one more play with 11 seconds left and take a shot at the end zone to try to win the game?
Offensive coordinator Brad Salem called a play, and the Spartans huddled, appearing as if they would take a shot at the win. But Dantonio overruled Salem and wanted a field goal, only he did it with just 15 seconds on the play clock. The kicking unit scrambled to get on the field, and Matt Coghlin made it from 42 yards. But because of the frantic nature of the situation, a lineman didn’t get off the field, and the Spartans were penalized for it, wiping out the tying kick. Coghlin missed from 47, and that was the ballgame.
MICHIGAN STATE HAD 12 ON THE FIELD!!!!! pic.twitter.com/n262wrw7mT
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 14, 2019
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 15, 2019
To me, it’s telling that Dantonio didn’t take the shot at the end zone. It sums up this offense’s entire mindset, that it’s too conservative and doesn’t attack. Besides, you have an experienced starting quarterback in senior Brian Lewerke. Dantonio said he was afraid of getting stopped before the goal line with no timeouts and the clock running out. You can’t trust your senior quarterback to throw a sideline pass or make sure the ball gets to the end zone?
Through three games of 2019, the evidence points to Michigan State is wasting an elite defense with this anemic offense — just the same as it did in 2018. Dantonio knew that last year couldn’t be repeated, when the Spartans averaged 18.7 points per game — fifth worst in FBS. It’s no longer acceptable for good teams to score one touchdown in a game; you can’t consistently win that way.
Football evolves over the years, and the best coaches are able to adapt. Look at Alabama and the way it has opened up its offense over the years. The Crimson Tide doesn’t just want its offense to manage the game anymore and let the defense win it; they are going out there to put up points and embarrass you. LSU has had an elite defense for years, but now it is able to win shootouts like last week at Texas. Both programs have realized that it isn’t 2011 anymore, when you can win 9-6 in overtime.
Michigan State looks a little better on offense this season, and it has even improved markedly since the season opener against Tulsa. But to still have zero points Saturday going into the fourth quarter at home is unacceptable. The Spartans were two-touchdown favorites against Arizona State for a reason; they had the fifth-year senior at quarterback, the Sun Devils had the true freshman.
Dantonio is an incredible coach, and what he has done at Michigan State is nothing short of remarkable. He took a basketball school and made it a force to be reckoned with on the gridiron. The fact that fans are frustrated with him (Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch noted he had never seen the fan base this fed up in the Dantonio era) shows the sort of standard he has set, which is double-digit wins. Seasons like 2018, when Michigan State went 7-6, are perceived as a failure. The problem is that the offense looks about as bad as it did last year.
Never in the Mark Dantonio era have I seen Michigan State’s fan base this fed up, this tired.
A day that should have been a coronation of Dantonio, instead turned into one of his worst as MSU’s football coach.
— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) September 15, 2019
It’s fair to wonder how Dantonio views offense in general. Take the end of Saturday’s game, for example. He burned two timeouts with the defense on the field. That’s an experienced defense and one of the best in the country by any metric, this season or last season. Did it ever cross Dantonio’s mind that maybe his anemic offense could use the timeouts in case Arizona State pulled ahead? That the offense needs all the help it can get and maybe he should trust his talented defense?
Defenses like Michigan State’s come around every so often. It it loaded with potential high-round NFL draft picks like Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams and Joe Bachie. That unit led the country in rushing yards per game last season, and it may do that again this season. It’s honestly fair to wonder who is going to put up points on them this season. Ohio State’s offense looks great, but other than that, who in the Big Ten could even think about breaking 30 on them? It’s just not happening.
So the fact that Michigan State can’t muster much of anything so far this season is very concerning. It has a single offensive touchdown in two of its three games. After a 2018 season in which the Spartans scored 14 points or less six times, that’s unacceptable. It’s clear not much has changed.
Even when Dantonio is unfairly putting the onus on the defense, saying “We gotta close it out,” the defensive players are saying all the right things and being good teammates. They deny a split in the locker room. But how long can that positive attitude last? How long can they continue to answer questions after losses when they continue to excel in their roles? After sitting through the same thing for all of 2018, it’s a lot to ask. Remember the Redbox Bowl against potential No. 1 pick Justin Herbert? He put up one touchdown on this defense, and it was still enough to win.
So what did Michigan State do in the offseason? Well, Dantonio shuffled the offensive assistants around. Dave Warner and Jim Bollman were demoted from co-offensive coordinators to quarterbacks coach and offensive line coach, respectively. Salem was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. The thinking was that getting different voices in each position room would be beneficial. There’s also value in continuity and familiarity with kids, I get that.
Michigan State is trying to open it up more on offense this year, and some of the numbers reflect that. Lewerke, for example, is second in the Big Ten in passing yards, behind only Elijah Sindelar and pass-obsessed Purdue. Darrell Stewart, after putting up 121 yards against Arizona State, is second in the conference in receiving. Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins has earned that starting running back role and is now second in the conference in rushing. Michigan State threw the ball on 15 of its 28 first downs. That’s good balance.
Details and context matter, though. Identifying Collins as the top back was step one. Now putting him out there in the most important situations is a must, like on a failed fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter.
And look at this quote from Arizona State’s Darien Butler, via The Athletic: “Watching a lot of film, they put the ball on the ground a lot. We knew we had a good chance. They’re not very protective of the ball. You see guys holding the ball with one hand. We knew we had good chances to get the ball out.”
That, to me, shows how sloppy and unfocused Michigan State’s offense has been. Opposing defenses don’t respect Michigan State’s offense.
Michigan State on Saturday became the first team since the 2017 Cotton Bowl to eclipse 400 total yards and score seven points. The Spartans moved the ball, crossing midfield nine times. But if you’re not smart enough to find ways to convert yards into points, it’s for naught. Lewerke isn’t perfect by any means, but he is healthy this season and he is capable of running a decent offense. At some point it’s on the coaches to put him in better positions to succeed. Maybe that last drive, when the Spartans went 51 yards in just over 30 seconds to set up the failed field goal, is something to build on for Big Ten play.
And a message for the rest of the Big Ten: Don’t let this happen to your program. Don’t realize three games in that you’re in exactly the same position that you were last year. Because there’s nothing that annoys a fan base more than a lack of progress.
There are other good teams, like Penn State and Wisconsin, that also appear to have great defenses but may struggle on offense sometimes. But those teams both have first-year starting quarterbacks and would hopefully show improvement as the season goes on. Michigan State, with its nine returning starters on offense, should absolutely not be in this position.
Who is at fault here? Dantonio said, “You can’t put it all on the coaches” when it comes to execution. Some of it is injuries, as an already below-average offensive line has been decimated by injuries.
But at the end of the day, this is on Dantonio. When you allow just 216 yards of offense at home, you have to win. Unfortunately for Michigan State, this has become an all-too familiar routine, and if Dantonio can’t figure out how to take advantage of this incredible defense, he will be remembered for it just as much as the wins record that he’ll soon own.
It was an uninspired showing from the Big Ten on Saturday as it went just 5-4. That includes a loss to the MAC, the AAC, Pac 12 and Big 12. The Big Ten is now 0-3 against the Pac 12 this season.
The wins weren’t all that impressive either, with Penn State edging Pitt and Minnesota surviving against Georgia Southern. Maryland came back down to Earth, too, failing to take advantage of two late drives deep in Temple territory.
Iowa grinds for rivalry win
Nate Stanley is that quarterback who isn’t necessarily elite, but he is darn good enough to make a big play and get you a win. And that seems to be Iowa’s identity, as it waited out a miserable weather delay to score a huge road win. It’s clearly Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West Division, then everyone else is several notches below.
Nate Stanley & Ihmir Smith-Marsette Iowa – play of the game right here pic.twitter.com/QVJcbXZTMo
— Hawkeye Football Fan (@HawkeyeFanHQ) September 15, 2019
The recurring section of this column
Justin Fields (199 passing yards and three touchdowns, plus a rushing TD) is awesome. Rinse and repeat. Nothing more to say on that topic.
On the whole though, Ohio State looks like a complete team as it demolished Indiana 51-10. J.K. Dobbins (193 rushing yards) has it rolling, the defense is loaded once again and Ryan Day appears to know what he’s doing in his first year as the full-time head coach. The Buckeyes look like a College Football Playoff team until further notice.
Did you catch any of the Florida-Kentucky game? Those were two very good backup quarterbacks. You don’t need the second-stringer, until you do, and these two were serviceable. Not great by any means, but they gave their teams enough to win.
That can’t be said for Purdue, which played without Elijah Sindelar. The Boilermakers were one of my four B1G teams that I thought would be hurt most if their starting quarterback went down, and sure enough, they were routed at home 34-13 by TCU. Jack Plummer is a promising prospect, but the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman is not ready to shoulder the entire offense by himself, which is what is required at Purdue right now.
Purdue finished with 23 rushing yards, compared to TCU’s 346. The Boilermakers are a pass-heavy team, and that’s fine — when Sindelar is in the lineup. He has shown that he doesn’t need a balanced offense, like when he threw for 509 yards and five touchdowns against Vanderbilt in Week 2. But Plummer, in his first collegiate appearance, needs some help. He was 13 of 29 for 181 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He was unable to get the ball to Rondale Moore, who was held to three catches for 25 yards.
Even after not playing a game, Sindelar leads the Big Ten in passing by 135 yards — but Purdue is 1-2. The good news is that Purdue has a bye before its Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
When asked if Sindelar would be ready for that game, Brohm told reporters, “You would hope so, but I don’t know. That stuff is out of my hands. I would think he would be. I’m hopeful that he would.”
Plummer will get better and figures to be a good player down the road, but if Purdue wants to win now, Sindelar needs to be back in the huddle as soon as possible.
Return of the MAC (winning streak against the B1G)
For the 14th straight season, the Mid-American Conference pulled one over on the Big Ten. Considering the conferences match up semi-frequently each season, it’s not entirely surprising. But the MAC is always an underdog, which makes these upsets surprising when they inevitably happen.
Illinois was a 7-point favorite over Eastern Michigan, but the Eagles stunned the Illini with a last-second field goal — their second straight season knocking off a Big Ten team at the buzzer after taking down Purdue the same way last season.
I figured if the streak were to continue, this would be the game to do it. No one does more with less than Chris Creighton at Eastern Michigan, which has among the fewest resources of any FBS program. And yet Eastern Michigan has knocked off a Big Ten for the second straight season.
Illinois has showed some progress with Michigan transfer Brandon Peters at quarterback, but this is the type of game that doesn’t surprise anyone who has followed the Illini or Big Ten football in the last decade. The Illini fell behind by 14 in the fourth quarter and managed to tie the game with less than two minutes left, but they couldn’t seal the deal.
But hey, life goes on. Northwestern lost to Akron and still made the Big Ten championship game. Purdue lost to Eastern Michigan, yet it also upset Ohio State.
Speaking of the MAC, Nebraska fans can breathe a sigh of relief after taking down Northern Illinois — which is a program in transition after Rod Carey left for Temple, but still a solid team nonetheless.
Adrian Martinez threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns, and he added a rushing score. The Huskers would be wise to not look ahead of Illinois next week as a showdown with Ohio State looms in Week 5.
Three Up, Three Down
1. Iowa’s luck
The Hawkeyes very well may have won anyway, but we’ll never know, thanks to this Not-Top-10 worthy bungle from Iowa State on a late punt.
What a way for Iowa State to lose … pic.twitter.com/i4R8D8sU7R
— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) September 15, 2019
2. Penn State’s defense
I’m intrigued to see what Penn State does at Maryland next week, but the early returns on its defense are very good. Penn State held Pitt to 24 rushing yards, and it is now allowing just 10 points per game. The Nittany Lions didn’t force any turnovers, but to me, that’s even more impressive to only allow 10 points to a team that threw the ball 51 times. Turnovers can be fluky, and they’ll come in bunches.
3. Illinois football wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe
Sometimes we forget that these are human beings pouring their hearts and souls into these 12 games. The Illini wide receiver reminded us after the loss to Eastern Michigan. These sorts of answers are everything an athlete interview should be — passionate and smart.
You can be candid and not disrespectful to your team. You can be vulnerable and still strong.
— Gordon Voit (@GordonVoit) September 15, 2019
1. Maryland’s red-zone offense
Mike Locksley had drawn extensive praise for his offense through two weeks, but he couldn’t dial up anything for the Terps in the red zone. Maryland’s last two drives featured eight goal-to-go plays, and it came up empty on each and every one of them. And that included two plays from the 1.
Michigan State shot itself in the foot with the 12 on the field, but it should have gotten another chance at tying the game because an Arizona State defender illegally hurdled the Michigan State offensive line. How does the officiating crew miss that in such a key moment? That is what you’re supposed to be looking for in those situations. Pac 12 refs, am I right?
Pac-12 refs botched the ending of the ASU-Michigan State game. pic.twitter.com/FqiNEB1ZJp
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 16, 2019
Ugh. Is Minnesota the worst 3-0 team in the country? A win is a win, but Minnesota has now had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in all three of its games — including South Dakota State and Georgia Southern at home. The popular sleeper pick in the West needs to wake up earlier in games.
The marquee game next week is Michigan at Wisconsin. Both teams are coming off bye weeks and should be well-rested and well-prepared. Wisconsin couldn’t have looked better in its two wins, while Michigan’s offense has left a lot to be desired through two games. This is probably the most intriguing game of the 2019 season thus far.
Michigan State plays at Northwestern, and that looks to be a good one too. There are five teams on bye.