THE MARK DANTONIO DYNASTY
This fall will be Mark Dantonio’s tenth in East Lansing. During that span, he has won 87 games. Michigan State has never failed to qualify for the postseason. Dantonio has brought Michigan State three conference titles, three consecutive top six finishes, and a Playoff bid. His former quarterbacks Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, and now Connor Cook are in the NFL, and his defenses routinely rank among the nation’s meanest.
Considering that he came out of relatively nowhere (prior coaching experience: an 18-17 record at Cincinnati) and that he’s likely not headed to another job, Dantonio feels like a relic from a past age of college football. An age when coaches spent a lifetime at one school and championships could be fueled on hard work and pure grumpiness instead of flashy recruiting classes and locker room waterfalls.
So in 2015, with half his core team lost due to graduation and only a veteran in Cook to guide them, one would have forgiven Dantonio for a nice 10-3 season in which seeds were sown for this year when the team would be deeper and more experienced.
Instead Michigan State went 12-2, won the Big Ten, and earned a Playoff bid.
Michigan State had the misfortune of running up against the Alabama buzzsaw and ended the year on an ignominious note.
Dantonio is a bit less outgoing than his contemporaries in Ann Arbor or Columbus, and for that reason he garners less press than the Big Ten East’s other heavyweights. He has to replace the best quarterback in school history. Outside of a few minutes in the fourth quarter of the Big Ten Championship game, Michigan State had no semblance of a running game, and new quarterback Tyler O’Connor will have to break in new wide receivers.
Still . . . don’t downplay Dantonio’s ability to get Michigan State to eleven wins, a level his teams have only failed to reach once in the last six seasons.
WELCOME, TYLER O’CONNOR
O’Connor has the unenviable task of replacing Cook, a three-year starter who racked up over 30 wins and holds the career passing record at Michigan State. Cook’s uncanny ability to convert third downs and gut out performances when the spotlight shone most brightly makes his shoes particularly difficult to fill.
O’Connor got off to a good start, stepping in for the injured Cook and leading Sparty into Ohio Stadium to knock off the Buckeyes. Like Cook, he completed 70% of his passes on third down and helped keep Michigan State on the field. The Spartans’ pro-style offense isn’t always forgiving for new starters, but O’Connor has had three seasons as Cook’s understudy to learn the ropes. But O’Connor’s success will be tied to a lot more than just his completion percentage.
Michigan State can do O’Connor a lot of favors by having a much more effective running game. For two seasons Cook had the luxury of handing off to Jeremy Langford, a running back with the rare combination of power and open-field speed. His absence was felt more strongly than anyone’s in 2015 with the running back tandem of L.J. Scott (a freshman), Madre London (another freshman), and Gerald Holmes (a sophomore) never quite clicking.
Obviously Scott had his moment in the sun in the Big Ten title game when he muscled over about half of Iowa’s defense for the game-clinching score. (Let’s enjoy it again, shall we?) But that 22-play, 82-yard drive was more or less Michigan State’s run game in a nutshell: getting just enough and no more.
By the end of the season Scott had emerged as the go-to option and that will likely continue into 2016. Hopefully Scott can mature into the role of a feature back and gel with the offensive line to find the open field more often.
At receiver, Michigan State continues its tradition of possession studs with NFL-ready size . . . unfortunately, the favored targets from 2015 are gone. At the Z spot, R.J. Shelton should have no problem stepping into a feature role, but X is a complete unknown with only one player (Felton Davis III) returning (and he only caught two balls, one in each of the final two games). Dantonio said this week that four freshmen (Donnie Corley, Cam Chambers, Trishton Jackson, Justin Layne) would see time. Josiah Price will provide a nice option at tight end during the break-in period.
Lastly, the line has to replace two All-Americans/1st Team All-Big Ten starters. That doesn’t just happen, but even with all the accolades this line was only good. We mentioned earlier the difficulty of any running back to grind out more than a handful of yards at a time despite being pretty good at keeping Cook on his feet. Some new blood might help.
THE SPARTAN STANDARD
When defenses play a safety close in run support, leave their corners on an island, and use linebackers to force runners to the flats, offenses are given a choice. Ether try to grind short yards out in the face of overwhelming pressure from the front seven, or sling the ball over the top over and over and over hoping to score the big play.
Unless you’re an elite defense, you’re going to allow big plays and have to just be okay with it. But for the last several years Sparty has built its identity on this style and have managed to do both.
If there was ever a time when it might not work to perfection, it could be 2016 (at least right away). While the back seven will be strong, the defensive line got completely gutted. Dantonio is trying to soften the impact with some transfers. Tackle Kevin Williams joins as a graduate transfer from Nebraska and figures to play right away. Gabe Sherrod comes in from Delaware State to bolster the end position. They’ll join two stalwarts: Malik McDowell and Demetrius Cooper are longtime contributors. Behind them are a crop of four-star freshmen who could jump in and help. Mike Panasuik is having a big camp and will probably see time at tackle. There might be a breaking-in period but this line will be just fine (eventually).
If that fails, take your pick of these linebackers. This is the best-stocked unit in the conference and the Spartans will need every bit of production they can offer to ease the transition up front. The Spartans get another year of Riley Bullough and Ed Davis returns from injury after twelve tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2014. (Davis is awaiting a ruling on a potential sixth year of eligibility.) Look for them to wreak tons of havoc in opponent’s backfields.
In the secondary, the safeties will continue their high level of play but there are question marks at cornerback (a pretty important position in this defense). They dropped off in 2015, giving up 52 passes of 20-plus yards last year, but got away with it against opponents not named Nebraska and Alabama. We’re not sure how less-experienced corners Darian Hicks and Vayante Copeland will perform immediately, but Michigan State and the No-Fly Zone have a reputation for developing stellar secondary play.
SKETCHY SPECIAL TEAMS
The more you dig into it the more surprising 2015 Michigan State becomes. This was an offense that scored enough points to win twelve games and make the Playoff despite no running game and little to no help from the special teams.
R.J. Shelton will likely reprise his role as primary kickoff and punt returner, though they’ve tried out freshman wideout Donnie Corley as well. The main legs, Jack Hartbarger, Kevin Cronin, and Michael Geiger all return but a young offense would love it if they could all give just a bit more leg.
TRUST AND A THREE-GAME SCHEDULE
There are many kinds of teams in college football. One is the uppity team led by a flash-in-the-pan quarterback or a good coach who immediately gets hired away. Momentum might carry them for a little while but eventually they flicker and fade back to mediocrity.
Then there are the Teams We Trust. These are the teams that have sustained a certain level of success long enough that even when they have questions, they get the benefit of the doubt.
When Michigan State bounced back from 7-6 to play in the Rose Bowl, it was a surprise. The subsequent eleven- and twelve-win seasons weren’t. Michigan State has accomplished something very rare in the modern age of college football: making the jump from flash-in-the-pan to elite program. Now, the surprise will be if the Spartans don’t hit double digit wins.
In order to do that Sparty has to win at what might be a very talented Notre Dame team. I previewed the Irish quite favorably but off-the-field issues and quarterback indecision are creating confusion in South Bend. I thought a young Spartan team might struggle in this game but now I think it looks more like a tossup.
And then, Michigan State hosts fellow Big Ten East heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan. (Sparty beat both on the road last year.) For all the offseason attention given to Jim Harbaugh he’s 0-1 against Dantonio and Michigan has still lost seven of the last eight to Michigan State. Ohio State and Michigan State have been a dead heat since Urban Meyer’s return to Columbus, each taking turns ruining the other’s seasons.
Those three games will write the tale of Michigan State’s 2016 campaign. Dantonio has earned a nice easy 10-3 year but I doubt the Spartans are capable of settling for that.