EAST LANSING, Mich. —Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke roped a play-action pass to a streaking Trishton Jackson for a chunk play on the first play from scrimmage, and that generated the first big cheer under a welcome April sky at Spartan Stadium.
In perhaps any other scenario, the opening of the Green-White Spring Game would be construed as one of those good omens ora sign of things to come. Yet a cloud still hangs over the program heading into 2017. Michigan State's ongoingsexual assault investigation, whichled to the suspensions of three players Feb. 9, needs to be resolved before the Spartans truly can focus on football.
Michigan State isn't botching this process, but that process still looms and makes it a challenge to generate authentic enthusiasm. That's oneconcern for a program that lost a step with a 3-9 season in 2016. That's what Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is navigating now. He's tasked with fixing the Spartans on and off the field, and there are no easy answers.
"There's no challenge in that," Dantonio said. "I've maintained the approach that I've always had. We coach our guys hard.I'm going to insist upon excellence to the best of our abilityand have fun with our football team. I love our guys and I always coach to that level. One thing's over here, the other thing's over here."
Dantonio motioned with his hands as if to separate the two, which he tried to do March 28 with a news conference.Three players were suspendedwhile the university conducted an investigation into a sexual assault complaint. The Ingham County Prosecutor's Office also has a criminal investigation into the complaint.ATitle IX investigation and external investigation into the football program are still ongoing. Football staff member Curtis Blackwell also was suspended.
No charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing. That makes it tough to focus on football.
That was evident at the spring game. It's impossible to focus solely on the players on the field without looking to see which players are missing. Michigan State had 15 players not in uniform Saturday. Dantonio didn't provide more information on any of those playerswith the exception of star running back LJ Scott, who had offseason surgery.
"We don't talk about injuries, and obviously we're not talking about any other suspensions," he said.
Those questions about the investigation need to be answered —and there is no timetable for that —before the Spartans can truly put thenext foot forward.The sexual assault investigation is the priority. Dantonio has no choice but to proceed down that path with caution, and he has done that effectively, to this point.
That's the play in the current climate. Baylor's Art Briles was fired in the middle of a sexual assault scandal. Minnesota's Tracy Claeys was fired shortly after supporting players amid a player boycott stemming from a sexual assault investigation.
Dantonio has taken the right steps, and so has the school up to this point. They have to get it right, orthe program the 11th coach built could unravel fast.
Consider all of that. Remember the "SOS" punch-line, which stood for "Same Old Spartans?"That was a program that once lost 49-3 on Nov.2002 at Michigan at the end of the Bobby Williams era. That was once a program known for John L. Smith meltdowns in halftime interviews and news conferences.
Dantonio transformed that program into a Big Ten bully that thrived on doing more with less and winning big games in spectacular fashion. Michigan State reached their high point in 2015 with that appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic.
If the investigation is mishandled, then the Spartans could suffer on and off the field for a while. That's why every decision has to be calculated. Dantonio took a risk by having the spring game in the first place, but he said it was the right decision for the players and fans.
"I think that we need to move on the moment," Dantonio said. "I think we needed to move forward. I told our players the other day that we were going to step into the light. Time marches on. This is a big program, and it's a serious situation and all that but we need to move forward. Our players deserve it and our fans deserve it."
Two years ago, a school-record 48,000 fans came out to watch a Michigan State team that would go on to win a Big Ten championship and play in the College Football Playoff. After a 3-9 season, however, the turnout didn't approach that.
Dantonio still drummed up the crowd in the waning moments, over-ruling referees who calledJackson for offensive pass interference after a one-handed catch. The Spartans played out a few more plays, then Dantonio answered another 20 minutes of questions in front of the media. Most were about the things "over here" and a few about the things "over here."
Dantonio tried to keep it confined to on the field, at least for a day.
"We just allow processes to play out on the field, in our meeting rooms, try to play the best players," Dantonio said. "That carries over outside."
More questions will come in the summer. Is Lewerke the right quarterback? Can this team compete with Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East? Those are the questions Dantonio is used to answering this time of year, but he won't able to do that in earnest until the investigation has concluded. He will probably welcome that moment. As Dantonio found out this week, there's no are easy fixes and no easy answers for situations like this.
But for this program, Dantonio is the right one to try to get it right.
"There's always something that needs to be fixed," Dantonio said. "You critique everything that we've done. We've been 12-2 and lost the playoff game, and things needed to be fixed. That's what we all do for a living. That's the world that we're living in. I can't point to one thing and say this is the most important thing. I'm not going to do that right now. We've had that conversation."