Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has been a program on a Sisyphean quest to earn respect. They’ve pushed the heavy boulder further up the mountain than even the most optimistic Spartan could have ever dreamed, taking multiple opportunities to enjoy the view from atop the Big Ten or from the San Gabriels after a Rose Bowl win. They took no shortcuts, relying on old-fashioned hard work and brute strength.
The boulder only grew in mass and it gathered the moss of expectations. A realist knew that, at a certain point, the climb would hit a plateau or valley. But few saw a steep cliff coming. Few expected Michigan State to step off of it Wile E. Coyote style and have the rock land atop them.
And now they’re dead. There’s no sugarcoating it. It hasn’t been a death by a thousand cuts. The carnage is grisly. Michigan State is 2-4 with Michigan and Ohio State still on the schedule. They travel to Maryland this weekend with the prospect of losing five straight games for the first time since 1991.
There is no cause for optimism.
Losing the strong backs of Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Shilique Calhoun, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin figured to be a major factor. The hope was that Dantonio, whose brilliance was finally appreciated after last season’s playoff run, would find an answer. He’s failed the test.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor’s ineffectiveness precipitated a quarterback controversy. He was pulled in favor of Damion Terry against BYU, the second of what is now three consecutive home losses. He was benched in favor of freshman Brian Lewerke against Northwestern. Neither proved to be viable options. Inexplicably, O’Connor returned to throw for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the second half of Saturday’s 54-40 drubbing at the hands of the Wildcats.
As a result, the situation under center is even murkier. Each player has major shortcomings. Dantonio is in the unfortunate position of choosing the one who will make the least mistakes, not the one who does the most to win.
The offense is anemic. It does not rank in the top 100 nationally in offensive explosiveness, offensive plays, scoring or total plays. Running backs are averaging less than four yards per attempt behind a patchwork offensive line that is being bullied after years of bullying.
Dantonio has long hung his hat on defense. That hook has come loose off its mount. Although there have been significant injuries, especially in the linebacking corp, there is no reason for the unit to be 117th in sacks, 115th in tackles for loss while allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of fourth downs.
When Michigan comes into Spartan Stadium in two weeks, 72,000-plus will have a great view of the Titanic’s final moments. Jim Harbaugh will — and should — revel in watching an army of rats either jump ship or drown.
On the one-year anniversary of Jalen Watts-Jackson’s Ranger Mission, it’s tough to remember a time when MSU looked like a unsinkable ship led by a fearless captain. Hitting an iceberg will do that.
In retrospect there was ample cause for concern. Losing NFL-caliber players en masse was just the tip. Fear of the underlying problems under the surface should be sobering. The race for life vests is on.
For years Spartans have bristled at the Little Brother moniker. Prolonged excellence, matched with middling Wolverines teams, rendered it totally inaccurate. But it’s impossible to deflect now during a 2-5 stretch with the only victories coming against lowly Furman and floundering Notre Dame.
Right now Michigan State is Baby Brother. They are so flawed, so troubled that kindhearted Michigan fans have done the unthinkable and showed pity. This is far worse than the disrespect the program used to fuel its rise.
There should be no bristling at the warranted lack of respect. This is not a chip to place on the shoulder but a bitter pill to be swallowed.