Dantonio's taxing season can turn around with a win over Wolverines
Michigan State has suffered through a miserable 2019 season.
The Spartans have stumbled to a 4-5 mark and sit in fifth place in the Big Ten East division. A far cry from where many college football observers predicted them before the season.
This week, Mark Dantonio’s squad will travel to Ann Arbor to take on rival Michigan in an annual rivalry game featuring two teams headed in opposite directions.
The 37-34 loss to Illinois in East Lansing could not have come at a worse time for Dantonio, who has lost four in a row and is coming off of one of the toughest setbacks of his 13-year tenure. The Spartans allowed the Fighting Illini to score four fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally from a 21-point deficit, and they allowed former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters to pass for 215 yards in the final frame alone, including the game-winning 5-yard scoring pass to Daniel Barker with :05 left.
MSU blew a 28-3 lead. Just brutal.
The collapse left Dantonio with just his second streak of four or more losses during his time in East Lansing.
Again, it couldn’t have come at a worse time as serious questions surround his future. The longtime head coach received the dreaded vote of confidence from athletic director Bill Beekman, who told the Lansing State Journal last Friday that replacing Dantonio “is not even a discussion.”
Dantonio has done a marvelous job leading the Spartans, including his 12-2 2015 campaign when the team won the Big Ten championship and lost to Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal. He has won three Big Ten titles and owns an 8-4 record against in-state rival Michigan. Of course, he just passed Duffy Daugherty’s program record by reaching 110 wins against Northwestern this past September. He has become an institution at the school.
But this has certainly been a trying season for everyone associated with the program. The Spartans were non-competitive in a 34-10 defeat to Ohio State, were blown out and shut out against Wisconsin, 38-0, and they lost by three touchdowns to Penn State. Up next is a Michigan team that seems to have a newfound identity on offense, so the schedule isn’t getting any easier.
Dantonio-coached teams were once known to be sound defensively, especially in the fourth quarter, but that has certainly not been the case as of late. Just look back to this past Saturday.
So where does Sparty go from here after one of the more devastating losses in program history?
At 4-5 overall and 2-4 in the B1G, there is work to be done to even make the postseason. And that road begins with a test against one of the league’s best: Michigan, which will be well-rested after having a week off. The Wolverines defeated the Spartans last year, and MSU only netted 94 total yards against coordinator Don Brown’s defense.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the loss to the Illini was the Spartans wasting the effort of their offense, which was able to connect on several big plays. Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for over 200 yards and a touchdown and had a 42-yard scoring run in the first half alone as the Spartans had a 25-point lead early in the second quarter. MSU had 336 yards of total offense after the first 30 minutes as they found success capitalizing on big gains.
But Lewerke completed just 5 passes for 48 yards in the second half, and he threw a 76-yard Pick-6 to Sydney Brown late in the game that cut the MSU lead to 31-30 and helped set the stage for Illini heroics at the end.
Vote of confidence or not, Dantonio needs to rally this squad. And he needs to do it fast. Maybe it’s for the best that a test with the Wolverines looms because it won’t be hard to emotionally get up for the clash. With Rutgers and Maryland following the showdown with the Wolverines, Sparty has a chance to at least salvage this season. But it will need Lewerke’s best game and a defense that gets stingy late in games like it used to do.
Or else things will continue to get uglier in East Lansing.