EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio called them town hall meetings, but what he had his players do last Sunday was neither grandiose nor formal. This wasn’t a politician walking around a stage with a microphone, taking questions and giving party-line answers.
Michigan State lost its seventh game in a row last Saturday, 31-27 at Illinois. Of all the games in this losing streak, this was the most surprising loss. Illinois was supposed to be the team that finally provided a win for the Spartans, but, instead, the Spartans committed enough penalties, failed to capitalize on enough scoring opportunities and fell apart on defense enough times to drop to 2-7. They’re still looking for their first Big Ten win after six conference games.
This doesn’t happen at Michigan State. It doesn’t happen with Dantonio in charge. Yet, it has happened.
Last Sunday, when players met up for their normal team meeting, Dantonio sent them to group therapy. They broke off into their position groups with their position coaches and, instead of going straight to the film of the Illinois loss, they talked. And talked some more. They aired their thoughts, their grievances, their frustrations and even the things they’ve enjoyed about this season to forget.
Dantonio is trying everything he can to end this losing streak. He doesn’t want it being eight games after Michigan State hosts Rutgers on Saturday (noon EST, BTN). If talking things through helps, then he’s going to talk things through.
“I asked our players to measure their level of commitment this week on Sunday night, level of confidence in their coach, position coach and head coach, their teammates, their level of confidence in their teammates, coach, position coach,” said Dantonio during his Tuesday press conference. “Then (we) sort of had a town hall meeting with each position group to get things on the table just to make sure there’s open lines of communication, just to make sure that we can identify the problems.
“When I asked our football team, I think most people know the problems. I’m sure whoever becomes president of the United States today knows the problems. But we’ve got to find the solutions.”
Rutgers, like Illinois last week, offers Michigan State the chance at a win. The Scarlet Knights (2-7, 0-6) have lost six straight games since beating New Mexico on Sept. 17. That happens to be the same date of Michigan State’s last victory at Notre Dame.
Michigan State’s biggest problems haven’t been its opponents; they’ve been with itself.
Hence the group therapy.
“It was just a chance to say a couple of things. I can’t share here, but it was a time to sit down with the coaches as a unit and share what was on our mind,” said running back Gerald Holmes, invoking the coach-player confidentiality clause. “We just have to keep going forward. There’s only so much you can do with three games left. The motto now is still ‘one game at a time, come out with a win.’”
The Spartans are last in the Big Ten in penalties, averaging 66.8 penalty yards per game. They committed 10 against Illinois for 89 yards. They’re scoring less than 75 percent of the time they reach an opponents’ 20-yard line. That’s 10th in the conference. They’ve had 31 red-zone possessions this season, but 13 times they’ve failed to score a touchdown. Eight of those drives have produced no points. Compare that to Michigan State’s opponents who have scored on 33 of 35 red-zone possessions, including 25 touchdowns.
Mistakes are corrected on the practice field. The goal of the meetings was to make sure everyone understood that.
“I think it was good,” senior center Benny McGowan said. “Me, personally, I mostly hear from the seniors, my classmates and their perspectives. In that meeting, we were able to hear from some of the freshmen, some of the younger guys and hear what their views on it is.
“What I really took from that is that I need to make sure as a senior I’m bringing the younger guys up with me, showing them how they need to prepare for next year, show them what they need to do so next year is a more successful season for them.”
The losing streak is the longest for Michigan State since 1982. The Spartans began that season 0-7 before beating Indiana, 22-14, and finishing 2-9. The only other time in Michigan State history that a team lost eight games in a row was in 1917 when the Spartans went 0-9. The 1958 team is the only team in Michigan State history to go winless (0-5-1) in the Big Ten but that’s what Michigan State is facing should it lose to Rutgers.
The Spartans finish the season with games against No. 5 Ohio State and at No. 10 Penn State.
“I’m just trying to problem solve the best I can,” Dantonio said. “I don’t ever want to walk in there and blame one particular player for a problem. I don’t think it’s one particular player. I think it’s an assortment of things.
“I just keep saying we cannot live in the past. We’ve got to learn from the past, but we have to live in the present. The only thing we can focus on is the next challenge.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo