What a decade. Fans of Michigan State football have had their way with their maize and blue neighbors the past 10 years, it’s undeniable. After a nearly three decade span of University of Michigan alumni and fan alike walking past State fans with their nose aimed skyward, they were served a taste of their own medicine. 10 years of it. And for 10 years, State fans donned a white lab coat and stepped into their role of medicine administering doctor as easily as they would step into a pair of slippers.
Look back on that decade fondly, Spartans. Remember “trouble with the snap” and cherish it as you would your dearest family memories. Look back on the 2013 Rose Bowl season, and that 29–6 dismantling of Brady Hoke’s Wolverines, and relish in the joy that was. Don’t forget three Big Ten Titles, a College Football Playoff appearance, a Cotton Bowl Championship, and eight out of 10. Don’t forget, but don’t hold on with the same vocal desperation so many disheveled Michigan fans showed in their recent clinging to decades passed. Don’t resort to yelling 8–3, or 2–6 against rivals. The “zero road wins over ranked teams” and “zero elite wins in the last X seasons” are gone, too. It’s sad, yes, but Sparty, it’s time to take your medicine.
No, it doesn’t taste good. It shouldn’t. It didn’t taste good for Michigan fans either. Not even those lunatics that condescended about Michigan State being Michigan’s “third most important rival.” Losing to us hurt them. It should have, even if they tried to gloss over it with a thin layer of arrogance. Spartan fans, myself included, begged for Michigan to respect us, to see us as equals, to do away with “Little Brother”, and to hate Green and White with the same ferocity they show to Scarlet and Gray. You got your wish. Devin Bush and several other Wolverines taking to the field for pregame stretches at the same time Sparty showed up for their traditional field walk was fueled by that hatred. 113 Spartans bowling over those eight Wolverines during the aforementioned field walk was fueled by that hatred. Devin Bush responding by slashing the midfield logo in an infantile display of anger was fueled by that hatred. Congratulations Spartans, they hate you as much or more than they hate Ohio State.
Don’t talk about class. Don’t hurl insults at Chase Winovich and his Hollywood remake of Mike Hart’s “Little Brother.” Don’t whine that they marched Paul Bunyan along your sideline, and jumped on midfield with the trophy in hand. Be mad that Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans allowed Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines to kick their door down, sucker punch them in the mouth, and make a necklace out of their teeth. Be mad that your head coach allowed a supposedly injured quarterback who hadn’t practiced for a week to take the field against the best defense in America and throw fades into the stands for an afternoon. Michigan should be allowed to enjoy this season as much as we’ve enjoyed most of the previous 10. Don’t sink down to what they were; clawing for stats and excuses in a whirlwind of inexplicable and embarrassing seasons. Own what they couldn’t. Own that we weren’t the better football team, and then watch them stampede their victory on our field, and let that make you angry.
What is The State of Michigan State? Not particularly good. Three seasons removed from a conference championship and the College Football Playoff is nice, but two seasons removed from a 3–9 debacle that included a lost locker room and a host of off-field issues is not. One season out of a 10–3 bounce back that displayed promising quarterback play and a tenacious defense is inspiring, but not when it’s followed by a 4–3 start that includes 21 of 22 starters returning to the roster. Say what you will about injuries, but injuries don’t call the Wildcat for Ladarius Jefferson on 3rd and 20 against an all-time stingy Wolverines defense. Injuries haven’t helped Michigan State’s 2018 campaign, of that there is no doubt, but they likely haven’t hurt it as much as Michigan State’s commitment to an offense so archaic the playbook might as well be written in hieroglyphics. The State of Michigan State is fairly simple. Decline.
You could make an argument that decline is too harsh. Stagnation may be more appropriate in your eyes. We’ll agree to disagree. From Mark Dantonio’s inaugural 2007 season until the playoff appearance in 2015, Michigan State had a win percentage of .725. That period included a 7–2 record against Michigan, three conference championships, three appearances in the Big Ten Title Game, and wins with regularity against AP Top 10 teams. Since that 2015 season? Michigan State is 17–15, with a 1–2 record against Michigan. While they’ve found the mojo it takes to haunt Penn State, they have been unable to topple the Buckeyes, the Fighting Irish, and the Badgers, and their dismantling of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl can be easily attributed to the Cougars lack of a starting quarterback and being a middle-of-the-pack team in a dismal PAC-12. If that doesn’t sound like to decline to you, I’m not sure how much more clear a picture I need to paint.
Jim Harbaugh deserved every ounce of criticism directed at him during his first three years as Michigan head coach. He displayed an inability to win games outside of Ann Arbor or neutral sites, an ineptitude in guiding an offense and quarterbacks, and a penchant for head-scratching and flat-out inexcusable play calling. He failed to recognize an all-out assault from Michigan State on the infamous punt, where Harbaugh failed to call max-protect against a Michigan State punt team with no return man; and worse yet he called a play-action pass out of his own end zone in Columbus that resulted in a defensive touchdown for Ohio State.
Instead of continuing the status quo, however, Harbaugh elected to improve the people surrounding him. Gone was his surgically attached offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, and in was former Florida head coach Jim McElwain. In Drevno’s absence as offensive line coach (he held a dual-position under Harbaugh), Jimmy brought in the best that money could buy in Ed Warriner, and the improvements this season have been palpable. In the absence of a capable starting quarterback, Harbaugh lured the biggest transfer name in college football history by bringing in Shea Patterson. Harbaugh now deserves praise for his work in 2018, the same way he deserved venom for his work in 2017.
It’s time for Mark Dantonio to do the same. Mark Staten has been coaching Michigan State’s offensive line 2007. He was fortunate in the first five years of this decade that a flurry of first-round talents came through Michigan State’s doors, disguising what may be borderline ineptitude as a line coach. That has become apparent this year, as Football Outsiders ranks Michigan State among the worst offensive lines in FBS this season. It was also apparent when Michigan linebacker Chase Winovich blew threw them like cardboard en route to holding State to 94 yards over the course of a game. Jim Bollman, co-offensive coordinator, has been asleep in the press box over the course of the past five seasons. He’s ridden the successes of Connor Cook into continuing to coach this offense despite no one really knowing what the hell he does.
And then there’s Dave Warner. The true mind behind this offense, as well as the running backs coach. Don’t let his pandering bio on the Spartan athletic website fool you, Warner’s offense has ranked inside the top 50 (#11 in 2014) in FBS exactly one time since his elevation to coordinator in 2013. Outside of 2014, Michigan State’s offense has ranked inside the top 75 once, and in 2018 currently resides at 107th out of 123. That’s two spots worse than the garbage Tim Drevno ran in Ann Arbor in 2017. Make no mistake, if Warner is calling the game Dantonio wants him to call, that is inexcusable on both parties. Starting a quarterback in Brian Lewerke who went 5–25 against the Wolverines on pass attempts after a week of not practicing is inexcusable. And by the way, Dave Warner states that as far as he knows Lewerke was healthy and practiced, which leaves two options: either Dantonio is an out-and-out liar when it comes to the health of his quarterback and is creating an excuse for Lewerke, or Dave Warner is asleep at the wheel of this offense. Either way, it is reprehensible.
Dave Warner’s offense is malfeasance. I do not say that lightly. His style of offense is detrimental to the development of the players and the progress of the program. Warner holding a position of power and being further empowered by his head coach has created a culture of toxicity in a Michigan State offense that it appears even the players do not believe in. Who in America lines up in the wildcat in 2018, let alone on third down and a million? Who in America consistently calls jet sweeps to the short side of the field? Who in America refuses to back down from dive plays on first down into the teeth of elite Big Ten run defenses? Dave Warner. His reprehensible play calling as coordinator at Michigan State is the reason why he can’t buy an interview from a power five school, let alone a mid-major. No one in their right mind is interested in the outdated, low quality trash heap of a playbook Warner continues to live by in East Lansing.
There is a pattern among Michigan State’s assistant coaches. All of them were here before the 2016 debacle that resulted in a three win season in which the Spartans couldn’t even collect a victory over the hapless Illini. All of those coaches are also here after. There is not one other school in America that would allow those coaches to return after that season.
Mark Dantonio’s successes as head coach at Michigan State have earned him a place in the annals of Spartan history. Dantonio as earned as much respect and adoration as any coach Michigan State has had, and he deserves it. He brought Michigan State multiple Big Ten titles, and a Rose Bowl. His career, and his time in East Lansing, should be illustrious. It has granted him full autonomy, but it should not grant him full immunity. Spartan fans refuse to criticize Dantonio because of his achievements, and while they are many, this business is “what have you done for me lately?”.
It’s time for Dantonio to step to the plate. He has employed and empowered his friends, and elevated them to the upper echelons of his program, the same way he had once elevated his program to the upper echelons of his sport. Yet, he has outwardly and inwardly spoken as though he is immune to the adaptations of the sport as a whole. He speaks and acts as if his program, his style, and his team are free of the burden of change. While Big Brother spends millions on assistant coaches and changes their style to reflect the growing changes of college football, Dantonio remains aloof to a culture that has surpassed his. If he chooses to continue to act like Little Brother, he will continue to be Little Brother.
It’s time that Michigan State football under Mark Dantonio is held accountable. Fans allowed band-aids to be placed over bullet wounds after 3–9 when it meant 10–3 and beating Michigan, because the glitz and glamour and glow of the Rose Bowl and Playoff still felt fresh. The band-aids have worn off now, and the bruises are multiplying. Michigan State’s eye is blackened, their hearts are stomped, and Jim Harbaugh stole their trophy. The glitz, the glamour, and the glow are gone. All that’s left is a program in disrepair, in dire need of a makeover. That is the State of Michigan State. It’s time for heads to roll. It’s time for Dantonio to swallow his pride and succumb to a system that deserted his.
College football is a business, for better or worse, and while its players don’t get paid, its coaches do. Michigan understands this. So too do Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and LSU. It wasn’t so long ago that Michigan State was listed among the powerhouses of college football, despite an outright refusal to approach the business in the way the powerhouses do. It’s time for that to change. If Michigan State wants to be a powerhouse; if they want what Dantonio built here to stand the test of time; then they must embrace the new school of business in the sport. It’s time for a sweeping change in East Lansing, and it rests squarely on Mark Dantonio.