EAST LANSING, Mich. — Asked how different it feels to come off the bench after having started every other game of the season, Tyler O’Connor looked up and flashed a halfhearted smile.
“I’ve had a lot of practice at that, huh?”
Fair point. That’s been the staple of his career, having played behind Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Connor Cook right from the get-go. He started one game in his first four years with the program. Now, as a redshirt senior, he finally took the reins, only to see them taken back and handed to redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
But after four straight drives of stagnancy, none of which produced points or more than 20 yards, Lewerke traded his helmet for a headset. Out came O’Connor, who tossed a 59-yard under-thrown miracle of a touchdown pass to R.J. Shelton on his third play.
That’s what Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has said he wants out of quarterback changes: a spark. Seldom has that spark turned into anything more than a flickering, fleeting flame. A couple of drives and it’s back to evaluating whether another change needs to be made.
“Damion Terry’s very much in the mix, though,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner reminded the media after Saturday’s 54-40 loss to Northwestern. Makes sense. No other position group has looked to limit its options. Heck, the defense went and grabbed a freshman wide receiver, Justin Layne, from the offense to put in at cornerback.
Irish-Canadian playwright Emma Donoghue wrote, “Change for your own sake, if you must, not for what you imagine another will ask of you.” Certainly, the Michigan State fan base has asked for, and maybe even demanded, a quarterback change. Just look at O’Connor’s Twitter mentions or the comment section of a game recap.
But this isn’t Dantonio changing because of pressure to do so. In the midst of an unprecedented four-game losing streak, Dantonio finds himself trying any and every strategy to vitalize his team. It has yielded perpetual early results, which fade eventually.
What would be better: if the Spartans tried to make work what seemed destined to fail, or if they continued making periodic alterations that never seemed to result in lasting, positive change? You’d probably prefer the attempt at improvement.
Clearly, the coaches have shown an effort toward finding the right combinations. They’ve switched running backs, linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Until they find what works, they can’t stop switching things up. And as long as any attempts at chemistry and flow are stifled by intermittent lineup changes, the results will be underwhelming.
The quarterbacks are no different. It could be heard in a slight waver in O’Connor’s voice. He has done well to handle any adversity with grace, but it seems to be wearing on him. Maybe it’s the lack of job security. Maybe it’s the lack of winning. They’re interconnected. But even if he’s on the bench, he intends to be ready to provide that next spark, hoping it lights up into something bigger.
“I’ve been ready,” he said. “I’ve been preparing for these moments for the past three and a half years.”