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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Michigan State blog The Only Colors

Mark Dantonio has been taking heat lately, but is this ‘hot seat’ banter warranted?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rivalry week, folks. While fans on both sides of the battle may not play nice, Austin Smith from SB Nation’s The Only Colors and I surely did when discussing the upcoming Michigan-Michigan State match-up. Austin answers all things Sparty in this edition of Behind Enemy Lines Q&A.

There’s been outside chatter that this could be Mark Dantonio’s last season, but athletic director Bill Beekman said that firing Dantonio isn’t even a discussion. What’s the state of the program? Should we expect to see Dantonio on the sideline in East Lansing next season?

There has also been more internal chatter about Mark Dantonio’s future this year than any before. Given the fact the team went 3-9 in 2016, lost essentially an entire recruiting class to transfers or dismissals and the University went through the Larry Nassar scandal, that is honestly kind of unreal. It should also tell you a lot about the attitude of the fan base at large.

When he took over the MSU program, they were a directionless mess. Under his watch they rose to the pinnacle of College Football, winning multiple Big Ten Championships, New Years Six Bowls and ultimately landing a place in the College Football Playoff in the 2015-16 season. No one was more beloved in East Lansing, not even Tom Izzo, who is as close to a deity as one can get. But unlike Izzo, Dantonio has since become a victim of his incredible success.

Since that CFP appearance it’s been almost entirely downhill for the program, both on and off the field. Immediately following the CFP appearance the team went 3-9. It was shocking, to say the least, but not half as shocking as some of the incidents that took place off the field. Not going to get into those here but needless to say they the red flags were up. On the field, those of us who followed the program closely were willing to write 3-9 off as an ugly blip, especially after it was followed up with a 10-3 season that included wins over Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. That team was chock full of sophomores and the program seemed poised for another great run. Not so fast.

They failed to live up to expectations the following year and went a disappointing 7-6. Even so, the horrible offense that was something the fan base could forgive given the outrageous amount of injuries that took place. However, fans still wanted some change. The offense had been steadily declining since Connor Cook left town and a fresh voice was clearly needed. Instead, Dantonio used up his fan base mulligan and rather than making a big hire, shuffled a bad deck. Those staff “changes” made in the offseason haven’t even been terrible but ultimately amounted to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and now, at 4-5, with some of the worst losses in the Dantonio era on the resume this program looks like a shell of itself.

The most damning aspect of it all is that the teams no longer exhibit the traits those great early-Dantonio teams did. During the Minnesota-Penn State game last week, the color commentator said the Gophers were “a physical, well-coached and disciplined team”. That hurt because those are all the things that used to be said about MSU. Now, they are lost at sea and the question of whether this Captain is the one to help them find shore again is more valid than I think anyone would have ever dreamt possible.

Now, I do not think Bill Beekman would fire Mark Dantonio in a million years. That man has so many larger and much more important fish to fry in the wake of the Nassar scandal, I think as long as the stadium hasn’t been burnt the ground he’s content. Honestly, I do not blame him, and as an Alum, support his ambivalence towards the fan bases happiness right now. His job is to make sure this Athletic department doesn’t allow the horrible things that happened to happen again, first and foremost.

That doesn’t mean change isn’t needed, however. Given the current priorities of the AD, that ultimately falls on Mark Dantonio. Personally, I think his vision was to go out with the guys who got you here, for better or worse. Ideally, that meant win 9-10 games with a senior laden team and elite defense and ride off into the sunset. Now, though, that fairytale isn’t coming true and he has to decide whether he really wants to push that boulder back uphill again. Dantonio is well into his 60’s, he’s lost his juice on the recruiting trail (which is the real shame of 2016, his best class, being the one that failed so spectacularly) he’s had a heart attack and based on his (lack of) personnel moves last year, he clearly isn’t itching to try and do this thing with brand new faces in the room. The fact of the matter is the climb back to the top of the hill for any coach at MSU is going to be one that takes multiple years and I’m not sure if he has it in him to scale that mountain. I just hope he understands that his legacy is beyond safe and his once-proud program needs to find its next leader, maybe even a guy who coordinated a National Championship Defense in Columbus and put together a great team at Cincinnati, who knows!

Michigan State ranks No. 24 in total defense. What makes this unit so good? Also, was there any noticeable decline last week versus Illinois without Joe Bachie playing?

The front four is probably the best part of the team. The defensive tackle rotation of Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk and Naquan Jones has been great, Kenny Willekes has taken a step back from a year ago but is still very good and Jacob Panasiuk has been solid as a sophomore. After those top five its a mixed bag, at best. The secondary has been largely disappointing. Josiah Scott has been his usual all Big Ten self for the most part but Josh Butler and Shakur Brown have each gotten picked on by opposing offenses all season. At safety, Xavier Henderson has done a solid job replacing Khari Willis, but still has some growing to do and gets caught out of position from time to time. David Dowell has probably been the biggest disappointment of the group. He’s a 3rd year starter and the same mistakes that have plagued him from day one still exist. Once again, depth is not a strength of this group, especially with Kalon Gervin’s nagging shoulder injury.

At Linebacker, Antjuan Simmons has been a breakout star and Tyriq Thompson is a load, although he lacks in coverage. The loss of Bachie is impossible to ignore but was pretty neutral until the 4th quarter of last week’s game. That was when his presence in the defensive huddle was clearly needed, but instead MSU unraveled in embarrassing fashion and the rest is history.

Brian Lewerke had a clutch game against Michigan two years ago at The Big House. How has he looked this season?

Lewerke has been fine but is perhaps the most damning example of this coaching staff’s collective failure. He has peaks and valleys like any QB but his peaks are incredibly high and his valleys are absolute backbreakers. He misses easy throws every game and consistently reads the RPO incorrectly. I give Brad Salem, the new OC, a bit of a break because he is putting a decent scheme together but his QB just doesn’t consistently execute on it. That’s also Salem’s fault but whatever, you get the picture. Moral of the story is that when he is right he is good enough to be that QB MSU fans envisioned taking them back to the promised land but when he is bad he can play them out of any game and the lack of growth is an indictment of his coaches.

Who is MSU’s most talented player on offense, and on defense?

Offensively, it’s probably Julian Barnett or Elijiah Collins. Both freshman, but both have shown major flashes of excellence and look like legitimate building blocks of a plus offense. Collins took the running back job early in the season which led to the transfers of Connor Heyward and Ladarius Jefferson. Barnett was MSU’s top recruit last year and his athleticism stands out with the ball in his hands. It wouldn’t shock me if he leads MSU in receiving next year and handles special teams duties once Brandon Sowards mercifully gradutates.

Defensively, I’ll say Antjuan Simmons. Willekes, Scott, Bachie and the DT’s get the attention but Simmons is the perfect Mark Dantonio backer. He absolutely flies to the ball and can effectively cover tight ends and even some slot receivers. He doesn’t blitz a ton but when he does you see the speed and brawn. He’s moving to MLB to replace Noah Harvey who replaced Bachie this week so he’s even more important than usual.

What’s Michigan State’s biggest strength and weakness?

Biggest strength is still the run defense, which is 16th in the nation. This is still the team that held Jonathan Taylor in check and bottled up Penn State and (to a lesser degree) Ohio State for long stretches of their games. Bachie being out in this one will make things interesting.

Biggest weakness is the offensive line. Injuries once again have ravaged this unit. MSU has been without its starting tackles and best overall lineman for almost the entire season, which has forced Jordan Reid and Tyler Higby into major roles they have already proven the last two years they cannot handle. MSU did have a strong OL recruiting class last year and those kids like Nick Samac and Devontae Dobbs are starting to play quite a bit.

What are your thoughts about the game? How does MSU stack about against Michigan this season? Any predictions?

MSU is coming off of its worst loss in years and heading into Ann Arbor to face a legitimately great defense and an improving offense without its defensive captain. It doesn’t look great, Bob!

However, MSU’s defensive strengths align with those of UM’s offense. The rushing defense is still very good without Bachie (Illinois RB Reggie Corbin had only 29 yards on the ground last week). If they can slow Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet down and make Shea Patterson play some hero ball, they have a chance to create turnovers, which they will need to do.

Where this falls apart is on offense. I don’t know how MSU will score. A few years ago it was Lewerke doing the job with his legs and I think that will probably have to be the case again. Whether Salem knows that is another question. Also, avoiding the big mistakes will be crucial, which as you saw last week is....yeah.

In years past you could count on MSU being physical, well-coached and disciplined, which can win you rivalry games where you are outmatched like this one. But that magic is gone at the moment and unless they find it in a hurry, this should be a win by a decent margin for UM.