EAST LANSING, Mich. – College football coaches are professors. The heart of their job is to be teachers. Mark Dantonio and his staff are doing a lot of teaching at the 100 and 200 levels this season for a Big Ten Conference that is often a 400-level curriculum.
It’s been easy to take out the red marker and circle up the litany of mistakes that have contributed to Michigan State’s current five-game losing streak, the longest for the program since 1991 and equal to the number of losses suffered in the previous three seasons combined. Missed tackles and blown defensive assignments have led to big plays for opponents, while the offense has stagnated from inconsistent play at quarterback and line.
Finding the positive is harder but it is there in each game, especially with a team that is playing more freshmen than any other in Dantonio’s 10 seasons. The final score always tells the hard truth of present-day reality, but what will define success for Michigan State the rest of the season has changed drastically from the first game against Furman on Sept. 2.
Michigan State is now 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten after a 28-17 loss at Maryland on Saturday, and it will face its toughest test of the season this weekend when No. 2 Michigan comes to East Lansing. So, how does the teacher get his students ready for this exam?
Part of it is accentuating the positive, using those moments to reinforce the lessons being taught.
It’s going back to the Maryland game and showing players why the offense ran for a season-high 270 yards and why sophomore LJ Scott had his best game of the season with 128 yards and one touchdown.
It’s not just reviewing a 36-yard touchdown pass for Maryland when safeties Demetrious Cox and Khari Willis got crossed up on their coverage responsibilities, but showing Willis, a sophomore, playing tight coverage and breaking up a fourth-down pass in Michigan State territory while the game was tied in the third quarter.
“It’s not a negative environment,” said Willis after the loss at Maryland on Saturday night. “Obviously, everybody wants to win and when you’ve got guys that want to win and compete at this level nobody’s going to be happy with unsuccessful results, but at the end of the day the positives are what help give us, I won’t say hope but confidence that we can get better. We’ve just got to do it every play.”
The participation chart from the final stats at Maryland recorded 44 players being used by Michigan State. Twenty-three of those players were first- or second-year players, including eight freshmen. Nine freshmen have played this season, three more than any other year in the Dantonio era. Middle linebacker Joe Bachie and safety Kenney Lyke made their collegiate debuts against Maryland. Bachie took over after senior tri-captain Riley Bullough was called for targeting and ejected less than 11 minutes into the game. Lyke came in after starters Cox and Montae Nicholson left with injuries.
Bachie finished with seven tackles and got praise from Dantonio and fellow defensive players for the job he did taking over the spot considered the quarterback of the defense without any previous game experience. He was one of six freshmen playing on defense.
Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke made just his second career start. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 156 yards and one interception. He also ran 10 times for 79 yards.
“I think Lewerke in a lot of ways did an outstanding job,” Dantonio said during a conference call Sunday night. “At the end of the day he’s still a redshirt freshman, so there’s some things that, you know, he could do a better job on and recognize faster.”
Such as noticing an opposing player tying his shoe instead of getting ready to cover a receiver. Or trying to scramble out of the pocket on fourth-and-16 instead of making a throw down the field.
“You’re going to have to make some plays with your legs, as he did, and then you’re going to have to keep your eyes down the field as well at times,” Dantonio said. “Those things are going to come as he gets more and more experience, but I do think that he made some plays out there.”
So much inexperience on the field at one time has been a factor in what is shaping up to be the worst season under Dantonio, not that you’ll hear anyone using it as an excuse.
“We have to get guys in the film room,” junior outside linebacker Chris Frey said. “They have to understand our defense as well as the guy sitting next to him. It doesn’t matter if he’s been here for four years or five years.
“We had some guys today who burned their redshirt and I think they realized that they need to get in the film room and really study the team that we’re playing because even if you study the film, they’re going to come out and do different stuff. So, you have to prepare yourself for that.”
Dantonio said when he’s in the film room, in meetings with players and on the practice field that everything – positive and negative – is looked at with the purpose of winning on Saturdays. Every professor’s job is to give his students as much information as possible, put them in the best position to succeed and make them better than the day before.
This Saturday against Michigan happens to be the biggest exam of the season.
“There are some good things on the film, there’s no question about that,” he said, “but the bottom line is, at the end of the game, (did) we win or lose?”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo