From a personal perspective, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has endured an emotional and disappointing free fall this year. Characterizing it as any anything else would be sugarcoating the matter. In all likelihood, he’ll always remember the feeling of an ongoing six-game losing streak; he’ll always cite this year to future teams when the bricks hit the fan.
And really, this year may serve Spartans fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor in much the same way. It was supposed to a successful victory lap for the defending Big Ten-champions. It was supposed to be O’Connor’s time to emerge from the depths and take the reins.
After Saturday’s 32-23 loss to Michigan, the Spartans own a 2-6 (0-5, Big Ten) record. They probably won’t qualify for a bowl game. Three weeks ago, O’Connor, a fifth-year senior, was unseated by redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke, a mobile dart-thrower who appears to be next in line at MSU.
An unfortunate ACL injury — compounded by a broken tibia (non-surgical) — versus the No. 2-ranked Wolverines, however, has stalled his ascent, meaning that O’Connor once again holds the keys to the Spartans offense, which put up 401 total yards during their first loss to UM since 2012.
O’Connor started that game, too. He completed seven of 14 attempts for 84 yards and a touchdown — but he also threw a costly interception. With that said, in familiar fashion, he was yanked in favor of Lewerke, who completed six of 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Lewerke is the future. O’Connor is the now.
This year will stick with Dantonio as much as it’ll stick with O’Connor. Maybe it won’t be football-wise for O’Connor — who dreamed of being the guy for MSU, saying he was born for such a role back in spring — but he’ll be able to apply his list of hard lessons to something else down the road.
Some type of career move. A personal or family decision.
Football teaches, though. So does Dantonio.
“First of all, he’s done an outstanding job; he’s an outstanding leader,” Dantonio said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches conference call. “And he has prepared for this, he’s seen this program for four years, so he knows our system and things of that nature — and it’s very difficult when you go through a situation like this. Especially when you’re the quarterback. I would say it’s probably as difficult as when you’re the head coach — almost — for a quarterback…”
Uncertainty in a three-man shuffle could throw off just about anyone. Being a fifth-year senior, O’Connor has all but earned the benefit of the doubt — which he obviously received during the first half of the season. Today, O’Connor realizes that he’s more of a bridge, than ever, for his program.
He’s OK with that, too.
“He’s maintained his maturity. He’s maintained his leadership throughout this — when we went with (Brian) Lewerke for a short time — and you know, he maintained his composure,” Dantonio said. “And then when he did have an opportunity to come back in the second half against Northwestern, he threw for 280 yards, and I think, for three touchdowns.”
Prior to 2016, O’Connor had just 14 appearances. At one time, he battled Connor Cook for the No. 1 job. Cook won the spot and stitched together one of the best careers in Spartans QB history. O’Connor patiently waited for his shot. With that said, being shelved for a couple of weeks this year — one due to an ankle injury — shouldn’t shake Dantonio’s back-again-starter.
“He will continue to push through this — that’s the makeup of him, as a person, and we’re very fortunate to have a guy like that in our program, in this situation — because he has resolve,” Dantonio said.
Resolve. Respect, too. According to Dantonio, there hasn’t been any friction among the quarterbacks. Everyone understand the sole mission, and that’s to win games. If Terry gives the Spartans the best chance, Dantonio will choose Terry.
There are no guarantees for O’Connor.
And again, that’s something he understands to the letter. This weekend versus Illinois (2-6, 1-4) is just another chance for O’Connor to create space between his current spot and being No. 2 on the depth chart.
“Those discussions are sort of in-house, that you have with people, personal conversations — but they’ve been positive conversations and he’s an extremely understanding person,” Dantonio said. “You know, he understands that there is a point where you have to allow somebody an opportunity to take control of the football team — especially if it’s a redshirt freshman and you’re a senior. Then as time goes on, you need to be able to build for the future a little bit.”
O’Connor can only help the Spartans build for the future; his collegiate football days end when the season ends. For the past five years, he’s helped prep other for success. This year hasn’t unfolded the way he had hoped for and imagined back in spring, but he has (mathematically) up to five more games to accomplish a portion of his dream in East Lansing.
Football teaches lessons.
Tough ones, too.
Dantonio hasn’t enjoyed O’Connor’s struggles, nor has he enjoyed the snowball effect of a six-game losing streak.
But he remains confident in O’Connor, who can do a lot to re-establish some semblance of control this Saturday in Champaign.