When things start to bottom out, there will be no shortage of finger pointing to go around. Thus is the case with Michigan State football. The Spartans are coming off their fifth straight loss and a date with rival, and number two ranked, Michigan looms on Saturday.
If “fifth straight loss” sounds like something you don’t remember hearing about Michigan State lately, it’s because it isn’t. Until now the longest losing streak under Mark Dantonio was three games, which happened twice in Dantonio’s first three years. Since then the longest streak is two in a row.
It gets worse. Neither John L. Smith nor Bobby Williams ever had a five game losing streak at Michigan State. They had multiple four game losing streaks, including two four game skids in the same year for John L., but never five in a row. For that we need to go back to 1991 when George Perles and company lost five straight to open the season in route to a 3-8 campaign.
Much like winning, a fall of this nature is a collaborative effort. No one player or coach is to blame when things to this south, this fast. Everyone is to blame in some way. But for now I want to focus on one area where Michigan State has really failed this year, and that is leadership.
Leadership is a difficult thing to judge. It’s not something that is quantifiable statistically, so you can’t just bring up the leadership statistics and say, “yep, there’s your problem right there!” There are also different definitions of what leadership is depending on who you talk to. Some believe leadership involves a “rah rah” speech at halftime or on the sidelines. Some will tell you it’s more about leading by example. Others will deny its existence or importance all together.
Tom Izzo puts a lot of stock into player leadership and its positive effects on a team, so I for one will tend to take his word for it when it comes to the mere existence and importance of team leadership.
For the Michigan State football team, their leadership has failed them in 2016, both on the field and on the sidelines.
One doesn’t need to look any further than Saturday’s game against Maryland to see how the on field leadership has failed.
In just a little over 10 minutes of action, fifth-year senior and captain of the defense, Riley Bullough amassed three personal foul penalties and was ejected for targeting. After coming off a game where the Spartans defense was shredded by Northwestern, they lose the quarterback of their defense in the first quarter.
Bullough was flying around early in the game, clearly trying to make something happen and playing with passion for a defense that badly needed some life infused into it after last weekend. But Bullough wasn’t playing in control and after getting called for a blatant late hit out of bounds and a roughing the passer call, he needed to be smarter. He wasn’t, and Michigan State lost arguably their most important defensive player for the rest of the game. MSU’s linebacking corps was already shorthanded due to a variety of injuries, losing Bullough only made matters worse.
To pick up three personal foul penalties and get ejected in about 10 minutes of game time is completely unacceptable. When you factor in that Bullough is a fifth-year senior, and a captain, it makes it almost unconscionable.
Later in the game, there was more disastrous play from one of Michigan State’s captains. This time it was fifth-year senior Demetrious Cox allowing D.J. Moore to run wide open for a 36-yard touchdown catch. After the game Mark Dantonio said that Cox was in the wrong defense on the play. A fifth-year senior captain not knowing which defensive scheme they are in? That should not happen.
Michigan State’s other captain is quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who has been benched in multiple games this year, and eventually lost the starting role to red-shirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
Going back to Tom Izzo, the Hall of Fame coach likes to say that a team will only be as good as its seniors. Looking through that lens at the football team and it’s no surprise that Michigan State is 2-5 right now.
The captains on the field have struggled to perform, and have not been able to rally their team when things take a turn for the worse. If leadership is stepping up and making a play and leading by example, these three have not done that, and neither has anyone else.
Meanwhile, I don’t believe that the players should shoulder all the blame for the struggles of the Michigan State football team. The players certainly are not making enough plays, but as I have said for a few weeks now, I don’t believe they are being put in a positon to succeed either.
The coaching staff has failed their leadership test as well, and judging by the way Dantonio sounded after the Maryland game, he knows it. He also sounded like a guy who doesn’t have any answers to a problem he didn’t see coming. Maybe that lack of foresight is part of the problem. Maybe an unwavering confidence in the coaching staff’s ability to squeeze every last drop of talent out of even the most mediocre players led them here. Whatever the reason, the coaching staff is certainly culpable in this mess.
I, along with many others, have taken issue with the offensive play calling. But that isn’t the only issue. The team consistently looks confused before and during plays. How many times have a quarterback and running back run into each other in the backfield this year? Penalties have been piling up at an alarming rate, the calling card of an undisciplined team. Special teams play has been a nightmare for a second straight year. The defense, even when starting out the game well, withers in the second half.
And Dantonio isn’t free of criticism either. The call to run a fake field goal at the end of the first half against Maryland was one of the most bizarre and awful calls I have ever seen. It was completely illogical and had almost no chance to succeed even in the best of circumstances. For Dantonio to try something like that tells me that he is completely at a loss for what to do with this team. For whatever reason, they just aren’t responding.
Top to bottom the 2016 Michigan State football team’s leadership has failed, and no one has stepped up to fill that gap. On Saturday Michigan will bring its undefeated record and number two ranking to East Lansing, with revenge for last year’s stunning loss on their mind. If ever there was a week for the Spartans to circle the wagons and find a spark, this is the week. I just don’t see it happening. Most MSU fans are resigned to their team’s fate this weekend, the only question is whether the team feels the same way. We will have to wait until Saturday to see.