After ending the season on a positive note with a bowl victory, Mark Dantonio and Michigan State now face a daunting future.
That reality was clear Monday, when cornerback Josiah Scott announced he was leaving early for the NFL draft. After finishing 7-6 in 2019, the Spartans face questions about their coaching staff, their offensive philosophy and, perhaps most importantly, their talent level. Their 27-21 victory over Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl was just a brief break from all those concerns.
“I keep talking to our players about: What is next?” Dantonio said after finishing his 13th season as Michigan State’s coach. “How do you handle your challenges coming down the road for you? That’s how we’ll spring forward. That’s always how we’ve done it.”
It was a memorable decade for the Spartans, who won Big Ten titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015 and reached the College Football Playoff in the last of those three seasons. But over the past four seasons, Michigan State is just 27-24.
Before this season, Dantonio reshuffled his offensive staff, keeping his assistants but giving them new roles. That didn’t seem to help much. When the Spartans went up against their toughest competition, they were routed by Ohio State (34-10), Wisconsin (38-0), Penn State (28-7) and Michigan (44-10).
Dantonio’s own future seemed uncertain, although he said last month he planned to be back. The Spartans avoided an even bigger debacle when they won their last two games of the regular season against Rutgers and Maryland and qualified for the postseason.
Then they held Wake Forest scoreless in the second half of the bowl.
Pat Narduzzi, Dantonio’s former defensive coordinator who is now the coach at Pittsburgh, was back in Michigan because his team was in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. He said he expects Dantonio’s program to bounce back.
“Dantonio will feed off that. That’s what he does. He’s been the underdog for years,” Narduzzi said. “I think what people fail to realize is in the game of football it’s hard to do it year after year.”
This was more than one down year, however, and while Dantonio’s team may indeed relish the underdog role, the Spartans have significant losses to deal with. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was a senior, and so were defensive linemen Kenny Willekes, Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk.
Scott announced his departure on Twitter Monday, saying it has been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL.
“Josiah has been nothing but professional during his time here in East Lansing in how he handles his business, both on and off the field,” Dantonio said in a statement. “We wish him the best.”
The Spartans, meanwhile, will move on. Over the past decade, Dantonio has changed the sense of what’s possible at Michigan State. The Spartans were legitimate national title contenders for a few years.
That makes the recent decline even more sobering, and as Michigan State sputtered this past season, it was fair to wonder when the program might reach those heights again. For the Spartans and their fans, a 7-6 record was no real cause for celebration.
“To me, it’s the basic minimum that you have to do,” Dantonio said. “That’s where this program has come in the last decade. That’s a good thing. You don’t ever want to take anything away from the guys that have accomplished what they’ve done. We’ve had a lot of things go against us this year.”
The season opener is at home Sept. 5 against Big Ten foe Northwestern.