In the midst of Mark Dantonio’s great run of success from 2010 through 2015, there was one blip on the radar, one season when the starting QB wasn’t Kirk Cousins or Connor Cook, when we got a glimpse of what a Mark Dantonio team without superlative offensive skill talent would look like. The defense was undoubtedly excellent, but even with Le’Veon Bell, MSU’s offense consistently spun its wheels, failed to crack 20, lost winnable games or needed narrow escapes over opponents they could have smothered if the offense had been not even good, but just functional, just average. MSU barely slipped into a bowl game, beat TCU in a gridiron abomination, and...then went to the Rose Bowl.
This is not an article arguing that the futility of MSU’s 2018 season is a precursor to a 2013 revival.
MSU came into 2018 with plenty of reasons for optimism. 2017 had been a rousing success, a rising from the mat after the calamity of 2016 and, so it was generally thought, an indication that maybe Dantonio wasn’t cooked after all. MSU returned an unprecedented level of production, losing only a small handful of starters from the very young and unexpectedly successful ‘17 group.
With the benefit of hindsight, that opening week escape against Utah State looks fine - they ended up being one of the best G5 teams in the country, after all. MSU’s complete lack of preparation for the hurry-up was, as it always is, tooth-grinding, but these things happen. No, the first indicator of what this season was to be came the following week.
Anyone who stayed up to watch the thrilling conclusion of Michigan State’s trip to Arizona State, which wrapped around 3:15 a.m. EST in the second week of the season, had to have some serious misgivings about what this team was going to look like for the rest of the season. Then again, maybe not. Against a presumptive first-round wide receiver and senior QB, on the road, in field temps over 100, MSU’s defense was heroic. Its offense...well, it’s not as though Dantonio’s teams tend to be all that explosive in the first place, and looking like utter garbage in the nonconference hasn’t prevented them from becoming functional in the past. One doesn’t want to take too much away from one game, in the middle of the night, in a stadium no B1G team has ever won in.
Depending on how green your preferred shade of Kool-Aid is, you may well have made it through the whole season without ever losing confidence in this program the way I did.
ASU stirred the first memories of 2012.
Northwestern reminded me of exactly how predictable and stubborn this coaching staff has been even in its good years, and exactly how often they’ve succeeded in spite of those tendencies - a fact underscored in MSU’s banner win of the year, when Felton Davis III had to take an underthrown ball from a Brian Lewerke we now know was injured but playing anyway in for a last-minute touchdown to crack 20 points and steal the W.
Michigan, in light of what Dantonio said afterwards, was the first time I’ve ever wondered if a Brady Hoke quote was being misattributed to Dantonio, after he admitted Lewerke had been too hurt to throw a ball in practice and then sent him out against a great defense anyway, saying that he basically left it up to Lewerke and his family to decide if he would play. I would’ve assumed a 7/28 for 79 yards passing line would be the nadir of the season.
Brother, then I went and watched the Nebraska game in person. After that, I didn’t even have any anger left for the Rutgers dumpster fire or the bowl against Oregon, because I knew how both of them would go. MSU scored 6 points in 3 out of its last 4 games.
In the debates I’ve observed about what type of slack ought to be cut to Dantonio and his staff, the word INJURIES is always the keystone of the controversy. It’s perfectly true MSU sustained a lot of them, especially on offense. It’s also perfectly true that MSU’s offense has been in sharp decline since its banner 2014 season, and that the win-loss column in 2017 prevented a lot of those problems from being too apparent on the surface.
Dantonio’s response to fielding a bottom-five offense with top-five returning production was, like that same offense, entirely predictable. Rather than cutting loose any of the assistants who oversaw this shitshow, he gave them all different jobs. Nobody got set adrift, thrown out of a window, or fired out of a cannon for overseeing an offense that surpassed 25 points 3 times all season, none of which came after the end of September. After Halloween, that offense scored more than 14 once.
Mark Dantonio has earned the chance to fix this in the way he sees fit, and even if I thought otherwise, it’s not like the AD is waiting for my thumbs up anyway. But man, does it feel like the worm has turned on this whole offensive philosophy making any sense in this day and age. I’m still hopeful he can fire up the disrespekt engine one more time, but the writing may well be on the wall.