Michigan rushed the field, lifting the Paul Bunyan trophy in the end zone and gesturing to the crowd.
Mark Dantonio walked off slowly, following his team into the tunnel.
A few minutes later, as Dantonio sat in a cramped press room, the green and white video backdrop not quite covering the maize and blue one, Dantonio faced the music. Last week, after a collapse and a loss to Illinois, Dantonio evaded everyone’s questions. But after losing to his most hated rival, 44-10, he could no longer lean on “next question.”
“Disappointing opportunity lost,” he said. “We go forward, gotta recollect ourselves. … Our focus will always be on what happens next.”
But what is next for Dantonio and Michigan State?
A 6-6 season? The Quick Lane Bowl? Nostalgia about the Spartans’ best win over … Indiana?
Maybe this is Dantonio’s last stand, though Michigan State’s athletic department has stuck by him all season, and Dantonio seemingly has too much pride to go out like this.
Regardless of whether or not this is the end, this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Dantonio was the coach who brought the Spartans back to prominence, who flipped the rivalry on its head and went 8-4 against the Wolverines before Saturday. Dantonio was the coach who heard his program called “little brother” and warned that pride comes before the fall.
This was the coach who took scrappy Michigan State teams and led them to victory on botched snaps and defensive slogs, the one who had a bag full of trick plays and made everyone believe he could win any game. Even here, at the Big House, a limping 4-5 team against one that was 7-2 and playing its best football of the season. If anyone could do it, Dantonio could.
Now, this is the coach who prevented all but his captains from speaking to the media to avoid distractions and instructed his players to come off the bus wearing helmets to get in game mode — and got run off the field. The coach who got beat so badly the opposing players told him to go home.
Senior quarterback Shea Patterson threw for four touchdowns. Michigan led by 10 at halftime, then ran up the score and clamped down defensively. The Wolverines gained 467 yards.
“Unacceptable,” said Michigan State safety David Dowell.
Once, that kind of performance against Michigan was not only unacceptable for the Spartans, but unheard of.
Now, it’s reality.
“The game sorta went from 24-10 to 31-10 to 37-10 and then boom,” Dantonio said. “Very quickly from there.”
He talked about how his team committed a false start and were forced to punt, how that punt was subsequently blocked and the Wolverines scored a touchdown on the next play. That was when the Spartans knew it was over.
He talked about how the Wolverines torched Michigan State with screen passes and converted far too often on third down.
How now, it’s time to win two games, because that’s what the Spartans have to do just to get to a bowl.
During the press conference, players and reporters alike danced around the Dantonio question. But one asked about the leadership and if the message needed to change.
“We have the leadership, as far as coaches and as players, we have leadership in place,” said linebacker Tyriq Thompson. “And if we didn’t have faith and belief and trust in that, and the people that are leading, then they wouldn’t be there in the first place.”
That was as close to a referendum on Dantonio as anyone was going to get, and in a lot of ways, he earned that trust. No matter how this season ends, he’s still the best coach in program history.
But something more monumental happened at the Big House on Saturday than the difference between a .500 season and a winning one, or the difference between a middling bowl and a bottom-tier one.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, once left in the dust in exactly these sorts of rivalry games, seized back the rivalry in one fell swoop. Dantonio, who survived so many questions because he could still beat Michigan, seemed to no longer be able to do just that.
“What has to happen as a leader, myself, the coach, the players, somebody has to be able to turn the switch too,” Dantonio said. “Turn the switch and keep moving forward.”
But what is forward for this team? Anyone who puts on a Spartan uniform knows which game is circled on the calendar. When that game ends like this, with carnage on the field and nothing to give the team a spark, how much help is it to flip some kind of unspecified switch?
For the first time in his Michigan State tenure, one that has spanned four Wolverine coaches, three New Year’s Six bowls and a playoff appearance, Dantonio came to Ann Arbor and got embarrassed.
Maybe Dantonio can rally his team to finish strong. Maybe he can come back and lead his Spartans to a few more seasons of beating the odds and the projections. But on Saturday, something shifted in the Michigan State program.
“I definitely didn’t think that would be the situation we’re in right now,” said Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke. “But here we are.”
Nobody really expected such a situation. But now that it’s reality, it’s hard to truly come back from.
Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.