Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio speaks to the media after the 10-7 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in East Lansing.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free PressEAST LANSING, Mich. — It wasn’t the refs. It’s almost never the refs. And when you mention the officiating, and then qualify that you’re mentioning the officiating by saying … you never mention the officiating, you better make sure it really was the officiating. It wasn’t. It was the offense. Again. As Michigan State football managed a single offensive touchdown for the second time in three weeks. Ouch. But it isn’t just the 10-7 loss to Arizona State that stings. It’s the depressingly familiar pattern of how it unfolded. And on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, for the second time this season, the fans let MSU know it. The Spartans didn’t score until the fourth quarter. Beyond that, they had one real chance to score a touchdown before that. It’s hard to watch. It’s frustrating to watch, too. You could hear that from the stands, obviously. Before long, you’ll hear it in the form of silence. Or, worse, indifference. And that would be a shame, because the man who runs this team happens to be the best coach in the history of MSU’s football program. Another touchdown Saturday night and it would’ve become official. Statistically speaking, at least. As Mark Dantonio entered the game a win short of the all-time record for wins at the school. Instead, he was left standing at the podium talking about officials. Or trying not to talk about officials. Or irritated, disappointed, frustrated, searching. For answers, yes. But, also, for ways to keep winning, to keep the relative end of his run intact. Because those Rose Bowl-Cotton Bowl years are starting to feel like a while ago. “I’m not one to stand up here and criticize officials,” said Dantonio “I never have … But there were a lot of things that set us back.” He’s right. He doesn’t often point fingers. Or make excuses. Which made it more surprising to hear him … make excuses. Chalk it up to frustration. To an offense he can’t unlock consistently. To a pattern of futility that goes back to last season and, frankly, back to parts of a couple seasons before that. Fans are getting tired of it. Players are getting tired of having to prove this week will be different. Dantonio is getting tired of explaining. You could hear that late Saturday night. Yet the questions aren’t going to stop. The second-guessing isn’t going to go away. You sit your best running back on fourth-and-1 and folks are going to wonder: What’s going on? They will wonder how many more times a back meant for blocking gets a handoff on second-and-long? And wonder why a couple of timeouts were wasted trying to set the defense when the offense would probably need them?They will wonder why it took so long to decide whether to go for the end zone with 11 seconds left in the game and the Spartans sitting on Arizona State’s 26-yard-line? Because the indecision forced the kicking team to scramble, and in the rush to get the field goal off before the play clock expired, the kicking team lined up with too many players on the field.Maybe a shot to the end zone doesn’t result in a touchdown. But going for it there stakes out a philosophy. And right now, it feels like Dantonio isn’t sure what his is.He’s caught between the impulse to stay with what’s led him to the precipice of history, and knowing he needs to change.Something he hasn’t had to do defensively, where he attacks relentlessly. Except late in the game Saturday, when MSU held a four-point lead and ASU faced a fourth-and-13. Dantonio called for his defense to drop eight men back in a zone. A void into which ASU’s speedy, Jayden Daniels, stepped. irBut to lay the loss at the feet of the defense? No. The defense gave up 10 points and might have given up fewer if the offense could’ve scored. The defense would never say that, obviously. All the defensive players said was that they should’ve done more to win the game. Good for them. They’re team players. They’re also covering up for their teammates on offense. Yeah, it’s easy to sit here and pick. To suggest that the late-game indecisiveness is a metaphor for the uncertainty in changing an offense. As Dantonio said Saturday: “Sometimes (when) you’re on the sidelines and you’re dealing with it … it’s a lot easier to see it from afar. When it’s up close, you’re trying to deal with it as it’s happening.” That wasn’t quite Dantonio telling folks to back off, but it was him recognizing the rising frustration among the fan base. He knows the toll this offensive struggle is taking. On his players, yes. But also on his staff. And on anyone, really, who cares about the green and white. The longer the offense stays stuck in idle, the further away the salad days of Jan. 1 bowl games will seem. Saturday night, the best coach in school history had a chance to put his legacy in the record books and couldn’t. At some point, he will get there. How long it takes him could change his legacy, too. AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide