EAST LANSING- It has been a rough year for Big Ten foes, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
The Spartans came into the 2009 season with much hype after coach Mark Dantonio had taken the team to two consecutive bowl games.
He also has done an excellent job of recruiting and many of the players on the team are now his guys. So, it was reasonable to have elevated expectations for the MSU 2009 season and its possibilities.
But for me this has be one of the more disappointing seasons I can remember. Not because I expected them to win the Big Ten title or not like the years before Dantonio where most Spartan watchers just closed their eyes and hoped for the best.
I have never in recent years seen a team lose like MSU did too many times in the early half of the season.
Very winnable games — amend that to games they should have won — were losses to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Iowa, where an offside, a missed touchdown pass and questionable penalties led to last-second losses.
After the horrendous start, the Spartans strung together three consecutive Big Ten wins and in a home game against Iowa had a chance to take the conference lead. But the last second loss to Iowa broke the team down and they lost the next week to Minnesota.
I strongly believe that if MSU had won those games, the close losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota would probably not have happened. This should have been a 9 to 10 win team. Instead they are 6-6 (4-4 Big Ten) and limping to a bowl game where another loss would produce a sub .500 season.
What a painful year to watch Spartans football, because of what could have been with one play here, one call there, and a crucial defensive stop anytime. Michigan, on the other hand, did not have the same expectations as MSU — at least not in my mind.
UM coach Rich Rodriguez, coming into his second year of overhauling the Wolverines, did not have the players to run his wild and crazy offense. I knew and expected it would take a few years for him to bring in the type of athletes that fit his system.
So what happens, he and the Wolverines leap out the gate 4-0 and, oh my goodness, UM nation’s expectations rose exponentially. I thought to myself, “Oh, brother, Coach has nowhere to go but down.”
However, even I did not expect them to fall like a dying comet in space. Seven consecutive losses to Big Ten opponents turned that lofty 4-0 record into a 5-7 free fall.
It makes for a long off-season when a team ends its season 1-7 over its final eight games. As the losing continued, the wolves began to circle Rodriguez and calls for his head were everywhere – radio, newspapers, the Internet and in barbershops.
I felt with the revamping of the UM football team’s offensive direction, it would take Rodriguez at least four years. Now, if he comes out and produces another 1-7 record in conference play, he may very well get the axe.
I think the style of play in the Big Ten is very different than the Big East. He will have to put more emphasis on big, strong interior linemen on both offense and defense. It appears to me he has misread the power style of football played in the conference.
What he needs to do is focus as much on defensive recruiting as he does on offensive players.
I think he is a good coach; now we will see if he can make adjustments to his approach to football and blend it with the type of opponents he will face in conference play.
Dantonio may not be in the hot seat, but the third year coach’s team truly underachieved, bringing back the ghost of Spartan teams that never quite seem to get over the hump.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez captained another bowl-less season and extended the Wolverines losing streak to six straight. Without a doubt 2010 will be a make or break year for the coach from West Virginia.
Leland Stein can be reached at email@example.com.