Players say things in the optimism of the preseason that can be blamed on youthful enthusiasm. But in the aftermath of a ravaged season, such comments can be reviewed as a red-in-the-morning warning that they were out of touch with an approaching storm.
Turn back the clock to Michigan State’s season opener against Furman, a Football Championship Subdivision member. Spartans linebacker Jon Reschke was quoted by Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press saying the team wanted to hold Furman without a first down.
“We’ve got to set our goals high,” he said. “I think our goal, not to sound cocky or anything, but I think we can hold this team to no first downs. We could beat them that badly, and that’s what we need to do to make a statement as a defense.”
Furman nearly matched Michigan State in first downs, 18 to 19. The Paladins frustrated the Spartans before succumbing 28-13.
For perspective, consider Alabama’s defense led the nation in first downs allowed at 13.0 a game. When the Crimson Tide beat Chattanooga, an FCS member that plays in the same Southern Conference as Furman, Chattanooga lost 31-3 but managed 10 first downs.
Again, write it off as youthful enthusiasm, but the “first down” comment was a headscratcher. Until we see the reincarnation of Bubba Smith, George Webster and Charlie Thornhill, no Michigan State team should talk about holding an opponent without a first down.
Regis Cavender, who played with Smith, Webster and Thornhill on the 1966 team and scored the Spartans’ only touchdown in the 10-10 tie with Notre Dame in the Game of the Century, attended the Spartans’ 31-14 loss at home to BYU, their third-straight loss after a 2-0 start. He told me he came away discouraged for the remainder of the season by the lack of enthusiasm he saw on the sidelines.
The BYU game was the third of three that senior team captain and starting middle linebacker Riley Bullough missed. Fellow fifth-year senior team captains Tyler O’Conner at quarterback and safety Demetrius Cox also had disappointing seasons.
At the start of the year, Jim Comparoni of Spartanmag.com cautioned the defensive line was thin. That was before Damon Knox opted not to use his final year of eligibility and Craig Evans and Montez Sweat were dismissed from the team.
Combine the above elements with a long list of injuries and a total of 18 turnovers for a minus-5 margin that tied for 101st in the nation, and 3-9 is easier to comprehend.
But as bad as 2016 has turned out, 10th-year head coach Mark Dantonio found his voice with the team by the end of the season.
Beating Rutgers isn’t much of statement, but routing the lowly Big Ten member 49-0 was significant. A week later the Spartans came within a failed two-point conversion of shocking Ohio State for the second-straight year in a 17-16 loss.
Penn State routed the Spartans 45-12 in the season finale, but Michigan State led 12-10 at halftime. Two second-half factors that explained the lopsided final score were Penn State’s motivation to clinch the Big Ten East title and desired payback for the Spartans embarrassing the Nittany Lions a year ago at Spartan Stadium, 55-16. Offensive lineman Jack Allen scored the final insult/TD.
Michigan State still has enough going for it to expect 2016 to be a one-year aberration.
Plenty of young players from strong recruiting classes gained valuable experience for their junior and sophomore years next season. Dantonio’s leadership of the program remains unquestioned. He knew what it meant to dismiss Evans and Sweat.
Brian Kelly fired his defensive coordinator during the season when Notre Dame went 4-8, and is now feeling heat with off-field problems. But no one is changing the temperature control in the Duffy Daugherty building. Maybe Dantonio will shuffle his assistants, but he generally has had one of the most stable coaching staffs in the nation.
Dantonio’s glow still burns bright from Big Ten titles in 2013 and 2015 and top six rankings the past three years. He has a Rose Bowl victory, a Cotton Bowl victory, and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
He owns a 7-3 record against Michigan, 3-5 against Ohio State (but 3-2 in the last five) and 4-4 against Notre Dame. There were nine straight bowl seasons until this year’s derailing.
Expectations will be lowered for the Spartans in 2017, but that’s usually when Dantonio has his team playing its best football. Those teams didn’t talk about holding opponents to no first downs.
Follow Tom Shanahan of FanRagSports.com on Twitter @shanny4055