Penn State’s football resurgence last season coincided with another Big Ten East superpower’s sudden demise.
While the Nittany Lions rolled to a surprising Big Ten championship, Michigan State morphed from a College Football Playoff team into a 3-9 disaster.
The nightmare didn’t end there for Spartans fans. Mark Dantonio’s team is going through two separate sexual assault investigations, with at least four players and one staff member suspended indefinitely.
The recruiting headlines have been ugly, too. A defensive end who committed to the Spartans didn’t sign after being arrested for burglary and stealing a firearm. Another incoming recruit received an alcohol citation during a visit to East Lansing in mid-January. And yet another incoming recruit recently was hospitalized after a water scooter accident in the Bahamas.
Dantonio’s long periods of silence and nonanswers haven’t helped. The Spartans kept spring practices closed to the media until the spring game. They had 15 players not in uniform for the spring game, and the coach offered no explanations.
“Obviously there’s a concern off the field, so we need to work through those situations,” Dantonio said last week in a Big Ten teleconference. “But as much as anything, when you have a young football team, you need to find leadership.
“We’re going to come together as a football team, and if we’re not going in the same direction, there’s people who will be left behind.”
The Big Ten East is an unforgiving place, anyway, so the Spartans can ill-afford these missteps. Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh recruit and develop talent with machinelike efficiency.
Michigan lost a whopping 10 starters on defense, including do-everything Jabrill Peppers. But Harbaugh’s 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes ranked No. 6 and No. 5 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Ohio State had another exodus with a Big Ten-most six players declaring early for the NFL draft: Malik Hooker, Marcus Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Curtis Samuel, Raekwon McMillan and Noah Brown. But few coaches reload like Meyer, who has senior quarterback J.T. Barrett to lead the way.
Penn State plays Michigan (Oct. 21) and at Ohio State (Oct. 28) over back-to-back weeks. The Nittany Lions return a ton of talent, including quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
“We were one of the youngest teams in college football last year,” coach James Franklin said. “We had only one senior on offense and only three on defense. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back that had big contributions on this team, significant contributions.”
After a 2-2 start last year Penn State beat the Gophers in overtime and reeled off eight more wins in a row, coming back to beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, and then losing a Rose Bowl thriller to Southern California.
“None of those wins, none of those points are going to help us this year,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to take it and rebuild it from the ground up.”
Dantonio faces a much more serious rebuilding project. Michigan State better dig deep.