It’s not uncharted waters so much as we’ve gotten so dang used to Sparty taking the high road, the scenic route. Before Saturday night, Michigan State hadn’t lost three games in a row since 2009, when coach Mark Dantonio’s third-season team had to rebound from a 1-3 record following setbacks to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin from Sept. 12-26.
But when a 2-0 record with mojo becomes 2-3 with questions, the negative superlatives start trickling out. BYU 31, Spartans 14 locks down the first season in which Michigan State has suffered more than two losses since a 7-6 campaign in 2012. Gang Green hadn’t dropped two straight at Spartan Stadium since late in 2012 (Nov. 3 to Nebraska and Nov. 17 to Northwestern). They’re 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2007.
The natives are hot and bothered, understandably, while some undergrads seemingly couldn’t be bothered at all:
— Great Lakes Forum (@GLForumonSRA) October 8, 2016
And now we turn the microphone over to John Churton Collins, a literary critic who once said, famously:
In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.
So, yeah, that. Basically.
Over three years, 36 victories and two Big Ten titles, Dantonio has made himself known and built up a pretty healthy, and deserved, cache of capital and goodwill. But now he’s going to have to start cashing some of those chips in, and probably sooner than he — or anyone else on the football side — would’ve liked.
At a time of year where it’s usually been about sharpening swords and drawing up a stealth map to the B1G title game, the Spartans are suddenly charged with doing something else: Circling the wagons.
— Boneheadpicks (@Boneheadpicks) October 8, 2016
— Jeremy Bebermeyer (@jbebermeyer) October 8, 2016
It’s not about not supporting my #Spartans, im going down with this ship…but to not know what’s bringing us down is the problem…
— MCB (@lookslikedrano) October 8, 2016
Culprits? Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor (7-for-11 passing, 58 yards, sacked twice) is the social media piñata, again, but this one was the work of many hands.
Or rather, several arm tackles.
After the Spartans put together a 15-play, 72-yard drive to open the game, the Cougars went into lockdown mode — winning, time after time, at the point of attack.
There are a few four-letter words for Saturday’s outcome in the trenches, but we’ll just go with one: Woof. BYU is reasonably salty on the ground, having gone into Spartan Stadium averaging 199.4 rushing yards per game (36th nationally) and 5.4 yards per carry (No. 20). They left as alpha dogs, having rolled up 260 on the ground on 49 totes Saturday, converting 10 of 16 third-down tries and making good on both of their fourth-down tries in a gruesome second half.
What Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (138 passing yards, 47 rushing yards) wanted, Taysom Hill usually got. And now Malik McDowell’s health is a concern for a defense that already misses the snot out of Riley Bullough, Mufi Hunt and Raequan Williams.
The “14” part wasn’t too great a shock, given the inconsistencies on the offensive side of the equation. The “31” part, well, that’s another story.
Which underscores another narrative that Dantonio can’t shake: Whenever the Spartans run into a decent defense (BYU) or a good one (Wisconsin), the rushing game, the backbone in East Lansing for roughly forever, goes to pot. Against the Badgers: 27 carries, 75 yards; versus BYU: 32 and 82.
Woof. Also, yikes.
Because this much already seems clear: Whomever the answer is under center, they’re probably not going to be able to carry this flag across the line by themselves. The aforementioned O’Connor was pulled in the second half in favor of backup Damion Terry (6-for-10 passing), who marched the hosts on their only scoring drive of the final 30 minutes. Although he also threw an interception and …
OH HE HAS TROUBLE WITH THE SNAP AND THE BALL IS FREE! IT’S PICKED UP BY MICHIGAN STATES DAMION TERRY AND IT DOESNT MATTER BC SNAP INFRACTION
— drunk zanjo (@drunkzanjo) October 8, 2016
If Dantonio is to restore sanity — let alone calm — it starts with restoring order up front. Or comfort, at the very least.
Tyler O’Connor stinks. This defense stinks. MSU stinks. And I’m cold.
— Luke Friday (@fridaluc) October 8, 2016
“It’s a reality check,” Dantonio told the Big Ten Network Saturday, “for all of us.”
And that reality is only going to get hotter. The games that stick and define the year — Michigan on Oct. 29, Ohio State on Nov. 19 — are still to come, and still at Spartan Stadium. Although suddenly that doesn’t look like as much of a qualifier, a point of challenge, as it was a month ago.
Sparty has Northwestern (2-3) at home next, and a visit to Maryland (4-1) after that. As recently as three weeks ago, that fortnight smelled like a pair of gimmes. But like that proverbial box of chocolates, now we’re not quite sure exactly what the devil we’re going to get. And you start to wonder if Dantonio is asking himself the same stinking question.