Note: In addition to the Penn State game, I want to review the 2022 season including undercurrents of the past 3 years, so this missive is a bit longer than usual yet I hope you find it interesting and informative. Dayne Thomas
Losing at Penn State was predictable, the only uncertainty was the final score.
At the end of the day, the Spartans were outscored 21-13 in the 4th Qtr., and when the game clock ticked Zero the final score was 35-16
The season finished essentially the way it started at Washington as the Spartans Offensive Line was overwhelmed throughout the game.
The Spartans feeble Rushing Offense (which currently ranks #112 in the land, and #12 Big Ten) continued its feeble tendencies by compiling just 25 net Yards Rushing on 25 attempts.
In total, the Spartan Offense posted a meager 254 Yards.
Meanwhile the Spartan Defense yielded 410 Yards to Penn State including 250 Yards Passing and 160 Yards Rushing which was a 150-yard shortfall for the Spartans, so it was another losing afternoon for the Spartans!
Yet, in the bigger picture, the 35-16 loss put a dubious exclamation mark on the Spartans 3-6 Big Ten record including the fact the Spartans finished tied for 10th Place with lowly Nebraska.
So, let’s reprise the season.
Double digit loss at Washington was a precursor to a miserable season
The Spartans went to Washington seeking a significant win as the first major step toward winning a National Title, but reality set in quickly and the Spartans proved to be “Not ready for prime time”.
The Spartans Defense yielded more than 500 Yards of Total Offense to Washington including 400 Yards Passing at an eye glazing 17 Yards per completion, and the Spartans fell with an auditory thud in front of a prime-time TV audience: the final score was 39-28.
The loss at Washington would become the first of six double digit losses.
Thereafter, the Spartans posted double digit losses to Minnesota (7-34); Maryland (13-27); Ohio State (20-49); Michigan (7-29); and of course Penn State (16-35).
All in, six double digit losses rendered a cumulative losing score of 91-213 (or minus 122 points).
Then there was a humiliating 31-39 (2 OT) loss to lowly Indiana, whereby the Spartans yielded an incredible 257 Yards Rushing to one of the worst Offenses in the land, got outscored 24-7 in the 2nd Half, and outscored 8-0 in double OT, and the entire episode occurred in Spartan Stadium on Senior Day in front of a “stay-at-home” crowd of about 40,000…it was beyond humiliating
Of course, to start the season, the Spartans posted victories vs Western Michigan (35-13) and Akron (52-0) and while a “win is a win”, let’s be honest, those victories were a mirage of success, because there is no “Gold Star” for beating two of the worst teams in the country.
Akron finished last in the Mid America Conference and ranked #130 in the land when measured against 130 D-1/FBS schools, while Western Michigan finished in a 3-way tie for 6th place in the MAC and finished a dismal #117 in the land.
So, that leaves the Spartans with just 3, razor thin, single digit victories in Big Ten competition:
- The Spartans managed a narrow 34-28 (2 OT) victory vs Wisconsin which was playing its second game with an interim head coach who has since been replaced.
- Two weeks later, the Spartans posted a 23-15 victory vs Illinois, and that victory resulted in an abundance of euphoria because Illinois was nationally ranked at the time.
- The Spartans then posted a 27-21 victory vs “last place” Rutgers, and the euphoria for winning “back-to-back” games was palpable, yet the euphoria was a bit misplaced because it was a victory over last place Rutgers: nevertheless, euphoria was short lived, because successive losses to Indiana and Penn State soon followed.
When all was said and done, Illinois was the Spartans only victory vs a winning program.
So, the Spartans’ cumulative winning margin vs 3 Big Ten opponents was a razor thin 20 points …while the Spartans’ cumulative losing margin was minus 122 points.
In summary, a 3-6 Big Ten record combined with stunning losing differential paints a bleak picture of a program that has careened off the rails, because the Spartans have now posted 2 losing campaigns in the past 3 years with a single Bowl trip and it raises and abundance of questions!
Let’s look back to Mel Tucker’s arrival…
Mel Tucker pledged to change the culture:
Upon his arrival 3 years ago, Mel Tucker promised to rip up the script at Michigan State and start anew.
“It’s going to be about changing the culture,” Tucker said. “That’s going to be the first order of business.”
But why? What exactly was MT pledging to change?
Of course, the last few years of Mark Dantonio’s tenure were not exactly championship caliber, yet his last 3 years were respectable including 3 Bowl appearances.
From 2017 to 2019, Mark Dantonio posted season records of 10-3, 7-6 and 7-6, or a cumulative record of 24-15 (60%) including 16-11 (60%) in Big Ten competition.
During that time, the Spartans appeared in 3 consecutive bowl games and posted victories vs Washington State in 2017 Holiday Bowl, and a victory vs Wake Forest in the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl.
So, while Mark Dantonio’s last 3 seasons were less than championship caliber, yet there isn’t anything to suggest MD was overseeing a losing culture.
Let’s also acknowledge, Mark Dantonio had established an impeccable recruiting reputation developed over 30 years of coaching…and he left behind a highly regarded recruiting pipeline.
In fact, MD’s recruiting presence was especially prominent in talent rich recruiting hotbeds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
It was well known in recruiting circles that MD had established recruiting relationships with a cadre of HS Coaches who proactively contacted Dantonio (and staff) regarding “under recruited and underdeveloped” players such as Le’Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard, Traes Waynes, and Jack Conklin to name a few.
Those “under recruited” players became the heart and soul of MD’s success.
Yet Mel Tucker declared most of MD’s culture was not worth keeping and so he started anew. He disregarded the recruiting pipelines and declared to change the culture and that included a change to the Spartans classic uniforms.
It appeared Mel Tucker was trying to erase the Mark Dantonio legacy!
To that point, one year after taking the reins, Mel Tucker oversaw the mass exodus of 27 players recruited by Dantonio. Those players were seemingly not deemed worthy by MT and not encouraged to stay.
And while those players may not have been highly regarded #1, #2 or #3 Depth Chart players, nevertheless they were abundantly qualified as valued teammates and “Developmental Scout Team” players. By any measure, the sheer loss of 27 players was a huge disruption that undermined continuity.
Let’s remember, Bo Schembechler famously said upon his arrival at Michigan “…those who stay will be champions” because he understood the value of continuity and the value of building a team at all levels including #1, #2, #3 and #4 players on the Depth Chart because they all play a valuable role.
Let’s also remember, the 27 outbound players had established themselves as good students, good citizens, and good teammates, yet Tucker’s staff put forth less than a tepid offer to keep those players.
Nevertheless, in the end, an unprecedented 27 players walked out the door, and to put that into perspective, 22 recruits (give or take 4 or 5) is a common recruiting class, so Mel Tucker lost the equivalent of one full recruiting class and that’s a huge loss because it takes 2 to 3 years to assemble a full recruiting class pursuant to summer camp evaluations, in-home visits, on campus visits and other evaluations.
Needless to say, Mel Tucker is entitled to boastful “coach speak” as it relates to “changing the culture” if it results in championships, but what does it say when Mel Tucker boastfully proposed to change the culture of a program that won 60% of its games over the previous 3 years, including 2 Bowl victories, then encouraged 27 players from the previous regime to depart, yet all the changes resulted in 2 losing campaigns over just 3 seasons?
In fact, I have been taken aback that Mark Dantonio has been accused of leaving the cupboards bare because I would argue he left behind a solid program with a solid roster that was the foundation of MT’s 11-2 season just last year, including nearly 30 players who were starters or got meaningful playing time, including: Thorne, Nailor, Heyward, Panasiuk, X Henderson and Elijah Collins to name just a few.
At any measure, Mark Dantonio left behind a program that was more solid than the Train Wreck he inherited.
Mark Dantonio inherited a Train Wreck:
Let’s start by looking at the program Mark Dantonio inherited from John L Smith and Bobby Williams.
From 2000 to 2002, Williams compiled a dismal overall record of 16-19 (46%) including just 7-17 in Big Ten competition (29%).
Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2006, Smith compiled an equally dismal record of 22-26 overall (46%) including just 12-20 in Big Ten competition (38%).
So, in 7 years preceding Mark Dantonio, Williams and Smith combined to post a dismal overall record of 38-45 (46%) including just 19-37 (34%) in Big Ten competition. Not surprisingly, the dismal records posted by Williams and Smith was underscored by an abundance of off field problems.
Of course, there were plenty of Public Relation’s gaffes as well.
Let’s recall, after a 49-3 loss to Michigan in 2002 (the Spartans worst loss in 55 years) the media posed a question to Bobby Williams: “…have you lost your team?” to which Williams replied, “I don’t know”.
That statement said everything, and Williams was fired shortly thereafter!
Of course, JL Smith committed a bounty of gaffes, too many to recount, but one lives in infamy.
In 2006 after a humiliating loss to last place Illinois, Smith, in his hyper ventilating persona, curiously slapped himself in a post-game press conference. It was strange theatre and an unseemly national embarrassment for Michigan State University.
Smith was fired shortly thereafter, but the humiliation lingered!
So, after 7 years of Williams and Smith, and with an abundance of embarrassing public relations blunders, Spartan Football was a broken product.
Team moral was fractured, a recruiting pipeline was nonexistent and very few players outside of a 75-mile radius of East Lansing had any interest playing for Michigan State.
Yet, into that cauldron stepped Mark Dantonio to accept the challenge at a time when few coaches were interested.
Give credit to President, Lou Anna Simon who appointed Mark Hollis then Associate AD to establish a search committee and develop a coherent list of viable candidates.
To his credit, Hollis and his search committee identified thirty candidates yet, only a handful were interviewed.
In addition to Mark Dantonio, the short list of candidates invited for interviews included:
- Former Spartan, Charlie Baggett…
- Former Spartan Assistant Head Coach, and former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham…
- Then LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini…
- Then Central Michigan head coach Brian Kelly…
- Then Philadelphia Eagles assistant and former Spartan, Pat Shurmur.
Yet, to their credit, Hollis and Simon were the driving forces behind the search: they understood the challenge and ultimately extended an offer to Mark Dantonio.
Let’s remember, Mark Dantonio resuscitated Cincinnati Football from irrelevance and put the program on a solid foundation, making it a respectable coaching destination, attracting future coaches such as Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and ultimately Luke Fickell, and 15 years later, Cinci was in the College Football Playoffs.
Mark Dantonio accepted a five-year contract for a reputed $1.1 million which by all measures was in the bottom tier of Big Ten pay scale. Clearly, it was not a huge payday for Coach Dantonio.
Given the mess he inherited, Mark Dantonio corrected course quickly, and in his first 3 seasons posted a 22-17 overall record (56%), including 13-11 Big Ten (54%) and got invited to 3 consecutive Bowl games.
Mark Dantonio went on to post a record of 114-57 (67%) overall at Michigan State including 69-39 (64%) in Big Ten competition. His tenure included 4 Big Ten division titles, 3 Big Ten titles, 6 Bowl Victories (incl Rose Bowl), 4 Top 10 finishes and a CFP appearance.
So, in terms of success on the football field and in terms of return on investment, Mark Dantonio proved to be a brilliant hire.
It was a remarkable run…
Mark Dantonio bequeathed a solid program to Mel Tucker!
After a glorious run, Mark Dantonio had seemingly grown weary and his final 3 seasons were pedestrian by his lofty standards.
In his last 3 seasons (2017 to 2019), MD posted records of 10-3, 7-6, and 7-6, or a cumulative record of 24-15 (60%) overall and 16-11 (60%) in Big Ten competition.
The Spartans appeared in 3 consecutive bowl games and beat Washington State 42-17 in the 2017 Holiday Bowl and then beat Wake Forest 27-21 in the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl but that was essentially Mark Dantonio’s swan song before stepping down.
Yet, by all measures, MD bequeathed Mel Tucker a highly regarded Football program, assuredly a more stable program than the mess MD inherited from Williams and Smith.
And while MD’s final 3 seasons were not championship caliber, nevertheless Spartan Football was highly respected across the nation.
At the bottom line: everyone celebrated 11-2, but is that all there is?
Mel Tucker posted an 11-2 record in 2021, but is that all there is?
Let’s remember, MT inherited a solid, if not championship caliber program from Mark Dantonio that posted 3 winning seasons and 2 bowl victories, yet Mel Tucker has taken the baton and posted 2 losing campaigns in 3 years.
Mark Dantonio compiled a respectable Big Ten record of 16-11 (60%) from 2017 to 2019, meanwhile Mel Tucker has compiled a losing Big Ten record, just 12-13 (48%), including two losing campaigns and a single Bowl victory.
Mel Tucker’s, Big Ten record is immediately below:
- 2020: 2 wins-5 losses (29%)…..(#13 Big Ten Overall)
- 2021: 7 wins-2 losses (78%)…..(#3 Big Ten overall)
- 2022: 3 wins-6 losses (33%)…..(#10 Big Ten overall)
- Total: 12 wins-13 losses (48%)
In blunt terms, Mel Tucker has posted 2 losing campaigns and finished #10 or worse twice.
And when we consider Mel Tucker’s 3-6 conference record while coaching at Colorado, it means his cumulative conference record (Big Ten and PAC 12) is a dismal 15-19 (44%).
We also know that no coach has ever posted 3 losing campaigns during his first 4 seasons and then gone on to win a Conference and/or National Title, so if Mel Tucker is going to take Spartan Football to the promised land, then he must defy the odds and do something no other coach has done.
So, Michigan State fans need to ask themselves is Mel Tucker meeting their expectations?
Is Spartan Football headed in the right direction?
Given his 4-year history at Michigan State and Colorado, including 3 losing campaigns, can Mel Tucker ultimately compete for Big Ten Championship against Jim Harbaugh (Michigan); Ryan Day (Ohio State); James Franklin (Penn State); newly hired Luke Fickell (Wisconsin); Kirk Ferentz (Iowa); newly hired Matt Rhule (Nebraska), or Bret Bielema (Illinois) all of whom have Big Ten or Conference Championships on their Head Coaching resume?
Meanwhile Harbaugh, Day and Fickell have all appeared in the CFP, yet Mel Tucker’s championship resume is blank!
I want to be fair, but it’s hard to say things are getting better when the fundamentals are seemingly broken, and here is a brief overview:
When measured in “key” statistical categories, the Spartans are statistically amongst the worst in the country: Rush Offense ranked #112…Total Defense ranked #103…Rush Defense ranked #101…and Defensive Pass Efficiency ranked #125. Keep in mind, those rankings fall into the bottom 25th percentile of 130 D-1/FBS schools, which also means the Spartans rank at the bottom of the Big Ten.
As part of his “change the culture” makeover, Mel Tucker got rid of Mike Tressel and for those who are unfamiliar, Tressel was the driving force behind the Spartans nationally renowned Defense during the Dantonio era, although Pat Narduzzi got most of the credit.
But it was Tressel who oversaw the Defensive Line and Linebackers, and as recently as Dantonio’s last 3 years, Tressel’s Rushing Defense was amongst the best in the country: 2017, ranked #2 (95 YPG)…2018, ranked #1 (78 YPG)…and 2019, ranked #16 (114 YPG).
And yet MT “broomed” Tressel in favor of Scottie Hazelton whose Rushing Defense ranked #101 this year, yielding an incredible 179 YPG, or yielding essentially 100 yards more per game than Tressels dynamic, top ranked units.
But, don’t feel sorry for Mike Tressel because he has been Defensive Coordinator with Luke Fickell’s staff at Cinci since being ushered out the door by Mel Tucker. Meanwhile, Cinci with Tressel leading the Defense, appeared in the CFP last year, and Tressel will arguably transition with Luke Fickell to Wisconsin
Yet, the precipitous decline in key statistical categories from Mark Dantonio to Mel Tucker is an ominous indicator!
Of course, there have been Injuries, and there have been suspensions…but that’s the challenge put forth to every football coach, at every level.
In fact, Michigan beat Ohio State last Saturday with Blake Corum their #1 Running Back sitting on the sidelines due to injury, and every week, every team has a list of 5-10 players who are unlikely to play due to injury.
Yet, we have heard Mel Tucker articulate what I perceive to be curious rationale for game day inefficiencies, such as we “don’t go live during practice” for fear of losing more players to injury…but wait a minute…that’s not a viable excuse for an inability to cover receivers in the open field or a viable excuse for Offensive Lineman missing their blocking assignments.
If shortage of players is at issue, it seems to me MT could have benefitted from keeping most, if not all 27 players that departed in a mass exodus shortly after MT took the reins…but he didn’t and now the Spartans are declaring “shortage of players”.
But coaches get paid to solve problems and those who solve the most problems win championships.
But the elephant in the room is the fact Mel Tucker is getting paid $95 million which is more than Jim Harbaugh and equal to Ryan Day. Meanwhile, Harbaugh and Day finished #1 and #2 respectively in the Big Ten, while Mel Tucker finished #10.
It seems to me, Spartan fans have been patient to a fault, because the results of the last 3 seasons would never be tolerated at Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, TCU or even Michigan which fired Rich Rod, then fired Brady Hoke before hiring Harbaugh, who has won 75% of his Big Ten games and only posted one losing season.
How will Spartan fans respond to this season? Is the “dew is off the rose”?
After all, for $95 million, most fans, at most schools, expect their respective coaching staffs to solve problems and compete for championships regardless of the prevailing problems.
Thank you for reading and I always welcome your comments and opinions.