Spartan Football is broken: can Jonathon Smith put all the pieces back together again?

The regular season for Spartan Football mercifully ended Friday night with a humiliating 42-0 loss to Penn State but now, the Jonathon Smith era commences.

Thank the lord the Mel Tucker era is done, and finally hope is renewed.

By all accounts, Smith is an exceedingly solid and stable coach, but very few coaches can repair the magnitude of the damage that Mel Tucker and his staff have caused.

And while there needs to be a measure of patience given to Jonathon Smith regime, there also needs to be a plan and there needs to be a coherent timeline to correct course, in other words there needs to be incremental improvement each season. We’ll talk more about that in future missives.

Yet, to understand the magnitude of Smith’s task, we need to survey the landscape and assess the magnitude of the damage caused by Mel Tucker but first, let’s check Jonathon Smith profile.


Jonathon Smith profile

Smith is 44 years old, reasonably young as a 6 year Head Coach, and in a short career, he has acquired credentials as a “turn around” specialist.

He was raised in Pasadena, CA and played football at Glendora HS in east LA County. In 1998, Smith “walked on” at Oregon State.

It’s notable, prior to Smith arriving at Oregon State its football team was amongst the worst in the country, compiling a deplorable record of 14-41 (25%) in the previous 5 years.

Nevertheless, upon arriving at Oregon State, Smith became a 4-Year starter and improved Oregon State’s record each year: 5-6 then 7-5, then in 2000, Smith under the guidance of Head Coach Dennis Erickson, led the Beavers to an remarkable 11-1 season including its first conference title in 36 years and finished the season ranked #4 in the country including a 41-9 victory vs Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

Smith’s achievements as a player became legendary at Oregon State, and after graduating, Smith embarked upon a coaching career in 2002.

He worked his way up the coaching ranks from smaller western schools such as Idaho and Montana, then Boise State a powerful mid major, and then Washington at the Power 5 level.

As QB coach at high powered Boise State in 2012, Smith helped guide the dynamic Broncos to an 11-2 record, a Mountain West title and a #14 ranking.

Then from 2014 to 2017, Smith was Offensive Coordinator & QB Coach at Washington on Chris Petersen’s staff and in 2016 Washington posted a 12-2 record, won a PAC 12 title including a #4 ranking, and earned an invitation to the CFP.

Then, Smith accepted the Head Coaching job at Oregon State in 2018 yet it is notable Smith inherited a totally dysfunctional program that compiled a deplorable 7-29 record (19%) over the previous 3 seasons.

Consequently, Smith spent his first 3 seasons (2018, 2019 and the Covid season 2020) stabilizing the dysfunctional program he inherited.

Smith finally got some traction and during the next 3 seasons, (2021, 2022 and 2023), Smith posted successive records of 7-6, 10-3 and 8-4, 25-13 overall (66% W/L record): not great, yet a grand improvement given the dysfunctional program he inherited.

Interestingly, given his experience as Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach, Smith understood that establishing an efficient Rush Offense and efficient Rush Defense that it would set the table for success.

Consequently, Smith’s, Oregon State teams have consistently been solid in Rush Offense and Rush Defense, and Smith will bring solid Run game fundamentals to East Lansing, which is notable given the dysfunctional Offensive and Defensive Run game the Spartans deployed during Mel Tucker regime.

Keep in mind, the Spartan Rush Offense was “dead ass last” in Big Ten this season averaging a dreadfully inefficient 80 YPG.

Meanwhile, Spartan Rush Defense ranked #13 when measured against 14 Big Ten teams, yielding a whopping 160 Rushing Yards per game.

By comparison, in the past 2 seasons, Oregon State Rush Offense averaged a championship caliber 200 Yards Rushing in 2022, and 181 Yards Rushing in 2023. To put that into perspective, that would rank #1 Big Ten. From another perspective, Oregon State Rush Offense consistently gained 100 yards more per game than the Spartans, and let’s be clear, football games are still “won” by running the football and winning the running battle.

As it relates to reestablishing a championship caliber Rush Offense at Michigan State, Jonathon Smith will bring Offensive Line Coach, Jim Michalczik.

For his part, Michalczik brings a championship caliber profile of his own, given stints at Oregon State during the Dennis Erickson era. He also had stints at UCal Berkeley as well as Oakland Raiders.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, in the past 2 seasons, Oregon State Rush Defense yielded just 108 YPG in 2022 and 104 YPG in 2023 and that would rank in the Top 5 of the Big Ten.

So, on paper, Jonathon Smith has distinguished himself as a fundamentally solid coach who teaches fundamentals and understands winning “the battle of the trenches”.

Yet, Jonathon Smith has undertaken a mighty task by accepting the Michigan State job, because Mel Tucker and his staff tore the fundamentals of Michigan State Football apart and recorded some of the worst stats in Michigan State Football history.

Let’s recap Michigan State Big Ten standings, Big Ten stats and National Rankings, so we get a clear understanding of “just what” Jonathon Smith is inheriting.


Big Ten standings:

This season, Spartan football finished the season ranked #13 amongst just 14 Big Ten teams with a Big Ten record of 2-7 and/or 1-5 vs opponents from Big Ten East. Only Indiana (1-8) posted a worse Big Ten record.

In fact, the Spartans only posted two Big Ten victories this season: a 20-17 victory vs Nebraska (3-6) a team trying to regain its footing under Matt Rhule its first year Head Coach, and the Spartans eked out a 24-21 victory vs Indiana (1-8) which just fired Tom Allen, its Head Coach.

So, there was no Badge of Honor for winning just two Big Ten games against losing programs.

Of course, losing is measurable and stats underscore the dysfunction.


Big Ten stats:

When measuring the efficiency of Spartan Offense and Defense in Big Ten competition, it’s nearly impossible to get worse or be less efficient than the following Big Ten statistical rankings illustrate:

  • Total Offense #13,…259 YPG
  • Total Defense # 13…yielding 395 YPG
  • Rush Offense #14…80 YPG
  • Rush Defense #13…yielding 161 YPG
  • Pass Defense #13…234 YPG
  • Score Offense #14…12 PPG
  • Score Defense #13…31 PPG
  • Red Zone Offense #14
  • 3rd Down Efficiency #14…27%
  • Penalty yardage #14…58 YPG

When measured against 14 Big Ten teams, the Spartans ranked “dead ass last” or next to last in 10 “key” statistical categories, and it’s virtually impossible to write a script with worse results.


National rankings:

In the bigger picture, when measuring the efficiency of Spartan Offense and Defense against 133 FBS schools, the ineptitude of Spartan Football is even more pronounced given that incremental measurements are greater.

  • Scoring Offense #129
  • Total Offense #125
  • Rush Offense #125
  • Pass Defense #102
  • 3rd Down efficiency #121
  • Turnovers #111

In fact, in national statistical rankings, the Spartans rank #100 or worse in more than 20 “key” statistical categories yet I have only listed 6.


At its worst against the best:

Of course, Spartan Football demonstrated it was at its worst against the best, losing to Washington, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State by a cumulative score of 170-10, or a 160-point losing differential.

And to underscore the dysfunction, in the final game vs Penn State, the Spartan compiled just 53 Yards of total offense…think about that, just 53 Yards of Total Offense…and that total was the result of just 88 Yards Passing offset by minus 35 Yards Rushing (-35).

Meanwhile, the Spartan Defense yielded 586 Yards to Penn State and that’s a negative differential of 533 Yards.

It would be fair to say, the coaches and players “mailed it in” in the final game.


At the bottom line:

Four years after arriving in East Lansing armed with nothing more than coaching clichés, meaningless mantras and a band of inept Coordinators and/or assistant coaches, Mel Tucker totally destabilized a Michigan State Football program that just 8 years prior won its 3rd Big Ten title in 5 years, posted three Top 5 finishes, won a Rose Bowl and played in the CFP.

Then, Mel Tucker came in with a promise to “change the culture” and essentially wrecked an historically proud program

Sadly, it will be a major challenge for Jonathon Smith and the new coaching regime to put all the pieces back together again and reestablish Spartan Football as a championship contender.

Yet I want to applaud Alan Haller for expediently making what appears to be a very prudent hire.

Is Jonathon Smith a championship caliber, Big Ten, Head Football Coach? Only time will tell.

But based upon his ability to “turnaround” moribund programs as a player and as a coach suggests he has the requisite appetite and skills to reestablish Michigan State Football as a fundamentally sound and solid program in the likeness of Iowa or Wisconsin, two teams that consistently “punch above their weight class”. And maybe more.

At any measure, two months after firing Mel Tucker and two days after hiring Jonathon Smith, hope is restored.

Let’s hope Jonathon Smith restores dignity and pride to Michigan State University and its football program.


Thank you for reading.