The Cougars absolutely throttled MSU. Embarrassed them. Dominated them up at the point of attack.
That’s what Mark Dantonio found so stunning. So surprising. That his team got bulldozed by a middling opponent.
“Hasn’t happened much in the past number of years,” he said.
No, it hasn’t. But it’s happening now, and it will happen again until the Spartans figure out what kind of team they want to be, and what kind of season they want to have. Because missed tackles, missed assignments, missed blocks and missed receivers are mistakes a team can overcome -- especially when it’s young.
But overcoming listlessness? That takes an internal conversation. It takes answering tough questions, too: Is it worth it? Do I have what it takes to try to salvage this season? Do I want to fight?
This is where these Spartans find themselves after Saturday. Lost in a sea of uncertainty. Losers of three in a row. Less than a year removed from the college football playoff.
As Dantonio said he told his team:
“This program is built on a solid foundation. It took nine years to do that. It’s taken that long to get to where we’ve been. The ride up the mountain can be very difficult at times and that ride down sometimes is very quick.”
The Spartans are learning that now. Particularly on defense, the side of the ball that established this program’s identity.
So while we can debate about who should be starting at quarterback – Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry both played and struggled – this year’s team is mostly a mess because it can’t compete upfront. On either side, at least not consistently.
“I think it’s mainly execution, staying in your gap, getting leverage on your guy -- technique,” said Brandon Clemons, a sixth year senior whose played offensive line but played on the defensive line against BYU.
His move to that side tells us a lot about how hard his coaches are searching. It also tells us how much talent MSU lost in the trenches. To the NFL. To graduation. To team rules. And yes, to injuries. All of it exposed a lack of depth in the toughest place to acquire it.
Clemons is a solid player and a good citizen but he’s a role player, which gets to the central issue this year’s team faces. While Dantonio has recruited well the past two years – by the numbers, anyway – right now, that young talent isn’t ready.
Role players are leading the way. That’s a set-up for disaster, a set-up for three straight losses. Which means at this point, Dantonio is going to have to consider changing. Personnel. Scheme. The rhythm of practice. Anything, really.
“Gotta look at everything we do,” said Dantonio.
It won’t be easy, not coming from where MSU has been. The Spartans aren’t used to losing records. Yet here they are, reminding us why it’s so hard to sustain excellence year after year. Or even series after series.
After all, MSU held BYU to three points in the first half.
“A defensive meltdown,” said Dantonio.
Brigham Young caused some of this, of course. But the Spartans couldn’t get off the field on third down again. Or fourth down, either.
Maybe that’s why the fans started leaving before the third quarter was over, with BYU up just three. They could see what was coming.
No play illustrated this better than Jamaal Williams’ 21-yard run early in the fourth quarter. The BYU running back took the handoff, cut through a large hole, and got tackled about 10 yards later.
Except he didn’t go down. His legs kept churning. The pile of BYU blockers kept pushing, and the whole team surged for 11 more yards.
Demoralizing. Yet not as humiliating as when the Cougars’ quarterback, Taysom Hill, scrambled out to the edge on a third-down play in the third quarter and stiff-armed cornerback, Tyson Smith. Shoved him, really, as if flicking away a gnat.
It was shocking to see. But then for much of the second half the cornerbacks had been asked to make too many tackles, anyway. Because the defensive line and linebackers couldn’t.
Not even Malik McDowell, whose targeting suspension forced him to sit the first half. McDowell did make a couple of plays in the third, but nothing after that.
No one did.
And may not for a while. Unless things change. Fast.