Nov. 1, 2011
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday inside the Spartan Club at Spartan Stadium to preview the upcoming matchup against Minnesota.
The No. 15 Spartans (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) will host the Gophers (2-6, 1-3) Saturday, Nov. 5 at noon in Spartan Stadium. The game will be televised on BTN.
MSU is currently tied for first in the Big Ten Legends Division at 3-1 along with Nebraska and Michigan. The Gophers are 1-3 in conference play after rallying to defeat Iowa last Saturday in Minneapolis, 22-21.
"We've always talked about November is for contenders," said Dantonio. "We've played a tough stretch these last four games, it's going to be a tough stretch these next four. That's just the way it is in November. But that's our outlook, that's our mindset. I do feel like all the goals are in front of us. We're tied for the lead in the Legends Division, and if we win out, good things can happen, either way you cut it."
In this week's national polls, the Spartans are ranked 15th in The Associated Press Poll and 16th in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll following the 24-3 loss at Nebraska. Michigan State has earned a Top 25 national ranking in the USA TODAY Poll for 23 consecutive weeks.
In the third Bowl Championship Series standings released Sunday, Oct. 30, the Spartans are ranked 17th.
The following is a complete transcript of Tuesday's press conference:
COACH DANTONIO: Just looking back at the Nebraska game, obviously had an opportunity to go in and make a statement nationally. Tough stretch that we went through with Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and then Nebraska, but played hard, didn't make enough plays to win the football game. Credit Nebraska with that victory and how they played. Great environment, great atmosphere. It felt like they invited you right in. They just rolled out that red carpet for you and then they get after it.
We know a little bit more about them and we'll build on that as we move forward. The most important thing right now is we focus on the future, we learn from the past, and we move on. If you look at our football game, you look at that game, the biggest thing that I saw offensively, we didn't make enough big plays. As a football team in the last four and a half years, if we make eight explosive plays, what we would consider an explosive play, 20 yard play, we're 34 and 5. If we don't get that eight, those numbers diminish greatly.
On the defensive side of the ball, if we're able to hold them to four or less explosive plays, we're 27 and 7, and that's the formula. So we've got to be able to do that out here on Saturday, and we've got to get ready for Minnesota.
I think emotion played a part in that football game. It'll be very emotional coming into any game, but you've got to be able to keep that emotion throughout. So when a big play is made like a kickoff return or an interception by Johnny Adams or a kickoff return by Nick Hill, which were great plays, we've got to be able to sustain those and build on those and allow those things to sort of ignite us, much like Darqueze's (Dennard) field goal block down here (at Spartan Stadium) sort of ignited us in the Wisconsin game. We were able to go down and score and it was game on.
We'll look for those things to continue. But if you had to say one thing, one reason, I would say it was that. We never could just sort of get over the hump and get that momentum that would allow us to play into that football game. It was close, relatively close at halftime, I felt. We needed to come out the second half and sort of catch on fire. Played pretty well defensively the first half. Third quarter we did not play well enough for whatever reason, penalties or whatever reason, and we've got to build on it and get better and move on.
So with that, the Minnesota game is up. I think Coach Kill, Jerry Kill, has done an unbelievable job wherever he's been, and he's building a program right now. You always look at football teams and ask whether they're improving or are they getting worse, and with the win against Iowa last week where they sort of controlled the entire fourth quarter from a ball control standpoint, you would say that they're getting better. They're going to play extremely hard. They're going to play with a lot of emotion.
If you look at their sideline, I don't care whether they're down 45 to 7...If you look at their sideline it's emotional, and they're going to bring that excitement with them when they come here. So it'll be important that we recognize that fact and play to the most of our abilities.
Offensively they want to run the football, which I think is a good mark of any good football team. They try and build on it, and they're not just going to all of a sudden just throw that out the window and start throwing the football 50 times. They want to run the football. (Duane) Bennett is their tailback, probably has the most carries, and obviously Marqueis Gray, actually, their quarterback, has more carries than anybody. They will throw a controlled passing game, but they're going to try and do it the right way and not going to just fly by the seat of their pants. They have a plan, they'll stick to the plan, and they'll be a team that continues to build as they move through this conference and in the future.
On the defensive side of the ball, playing again hard, got to come up with more turnovers. If you said one thing that's hurting them, they're not coming up with as many turnovers. They've got seven or eight starters back on the defensive side of the ball from last year, and even though the score was 31 to 8 at the end of the game as I remembered, it was a very competitive game early on.
So we'll go with that, and I will just answer some questions.
Q. Tony Lippett, you talked in preseason about how crucial he was, both sides of the ball we're going to see him, and we're not. He's still on the depth chart. Is there an injury or what's the reason?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, Tony did start the game last week, and he played about 12 plays on the defensive side of the ball. With Bennie Fowler being out, Tony got some reps on the offensive side of the ball. We have three seniors, those three guys doing a pretty good job. So Tony was the fourth guy in there. Then with some injuries on the defensive side of the ball, we had to move Tony back over to the defensive side of the ball, Fowler came back, so he's the third corner. He's the next corner in the game. We're going to usually keep those corners in there. But he shows up on special teams right now.
He's going to be a great player for us. I think he's probably a little disappointed, as well, but we go back and forth as to where we're going to play him. You know, there's four games left, so we'll see how it all shakes out. But he's a good football player, great young man, great person, great attitude.
Q. After the Nebraska game the coaches and players talked about keying in on B.J. (Cunningham) and Keshawn (Martin) because they didn't think there would be some other reads. Is there concern about variety in play calling?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I'm not concerned about that. It's real easy to talk that after the game. I'm concerning myself with the future.
Q. Early in the game you took a shot with Dion Sims on one play, but seemed like later the tight ends weren't really as much a part of the passing game, they were staying in the block more. Is that something they were doing?
COACH DANTONIO: Nebraska did an excellent job walling our receivers up, tight ends included, predominantly rushed four people the majority of the game, from a chaos type of alignment on 3rd down, which they were moving around, no particular movement, and they'd hit the line of scrimmage. We couldn't get open.
The bottom line was they had us walled up and covered, whether it was three or two or four or three, but they always had somebody underneath a player. They did a nice job recognizing the routes that we were running, and they walled us up. They took away B.J., and as I said, when we don't have explosive plays, there's a difference there.
I thought we were able to run the football, but you can't continue to run the ball when the score gets a little bit lopsided. So when it goes 17 to 3 and they've got 13 minutes or whatever it was of the third quarter, it becomes a different football game as you enter the fourth quarter. And ultimately, instead of getting the ball back (down) 10-3 and getting our offense in rhythm running the ball, which we were able to do in the football game, and really in the third quarter when we got it, it becomes 17 to 3, and we've got to throw it a little bit more.
But from what I saw, they did a great job in pass coverage. Credit them and what they did. Credit their coaches, however you want to do it. But it wasn't that we were running the same patterns. It wasn't just the same monotonous thing. It was different routes, different things that we were doing, and when those things get down, the quarterback has to choke the ball, and that's when the rush gets to them.
But Cousins did a nice job a couple times scrambling out of the rush, but that's what happened. As far as running the football, you can't run it every single time. But I did think we ran the ball okay. But then the score indicated that we had to do other things, as well.
Q. Last year your team really embraced the month of November, played very well en route to the Big Ten Championship. Can you talk about the mindset of going after a Big Ten Championship again this year but having to play really well in November?
COACH DANTONIO: In our history since we've been here in November, our football team is a 9-3 football team, so we've played well in November all four years that we've been here thus far and we'll continue to try and improve on that as we move into this November. We've always talked about November is for contenders. We've played a tough stretch these last four games, it's going to be a tough stretch these next four. That's just the way it is in November. But that's our outlook, that's our mindset. I do feel, or we do feel, like all the goals are in front of us. We're tied for the lead in the Legends Division, and if we win out, good things can happen, either way you cut it. Either we're in the championship game or we're not and we're sitting there 10 and 2. So we have an opportunity to do that. That has to be our goals, and we'll let everything else play out as it is. But there are a number of teams that have opportunities to do that on this side of the conference. So we'll see how it all shakes out.
But we're still a football team that's won 17 out of our last 21 games. We do have to find a way to win away from home. I thought we conquered that a little bit, but we went to Nebraska and didn't win on the road, first time we had been there since '96. When we go to Northwestern and we go to Iowa we have a history of being able to go there and play. We'll at least have an idea of what that all entails in terms of the environment there.
Our seniors have opportunities to win as many games or more as any senior group in 114 years at Michigan State, so we'll build on that, as well, and those are good things to look forward to. So we're a 6 and 2 football team, and we're not 7 and 1. I wish we were sitting here 7 and 1, but whether you lose by one or whether you lose by 21, we're still 6 and 2.
Q. A lot of guys banged up on Saturday. No changes on the depth chart. How is the overall team health?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we did get banged up and we lost some guys for the game. I think that those guys will be back. They may be hindered a little bit during the week here for a day of practice or maybe a little bit tentative or however we say it, put them in a yellow shirt early in practice where they can practice with no contact, but they should all make it back. I would anticipate everybody being there.
Q. You mentioned the running game Saturday. Do you maybe think you need to emphasize running the ball moving forward? Do you feel like you can run better than you did early in the season?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think a couple things. First of all, when you look at our rushing offense, we played against Ohio State, played against Michigan and obviously played against Wisconsin and played against Nebraska. For the most part those are pretty good defenses. And so we want to run the football, make no mistakes about that. We want to be balanced and run the football. I think that's a necessity. I don't know if I am answering your questions, but we need to run the football. I think we can, yes. We're constantly trying to find different ways to do that, as well.
Q. After what you guys had gone through in October, it was natural that this game was going to be difficult to get your players' attention. How much does it help that Minnesota beat Iowa in that regard?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it gives them instant credibility in terms of a football team that you'd better not overlook because they play with a lot of emotion. They controlled the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter and against an Iowa football team, that's difficult to do. To be able to run the football consistently in the fourth quarter, that's a testament. You can build on that if you're Minnesota. As far as where we're at, we're looking for number seven, and seven means complete. So we're looking for number seven, and we'll just continue to try and do that.
Q. Going into the Nebraska game, the way that it would seem to attack them is with your running backs in the passing game. With Larry (Caper) being your pass receiving running back, him going down, did that seemingly put a kink in your game plan?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, it did, but as I said, they did a nice job with what they did. They had us covered up, and we did check it down a couple times to Le'Veon (Bell), I believe. But I don't know that that had anything to do with it other than losing a good football player for the game when he went out on the opening kick.
Q. Your thoughts on the "I Agree With Kirk" campaign and maybe how that's affecting the team this week?
COACH DANTONIO: I agree with Kirk. I do. I think it's a great thing that he's doing. When you play football here, I guess you have a platform, and if you can use your platform for good, that's a positive thing.
Q. I just want to ask you about MarQueis Gray as a quarterback and defending him. He's a bigger, physical guy. Did you see him grow last week in that fourth quarter, the winning drive, and what are the challenges of defending a guy like that?
COACH DANTONIO: MarQueis Gray was an excellent quarterback coming out of high school. He was a highly recruited guy. We were actually recruiting him, as well. He's gone from quarterback to wide receiver, now he's back at quarterback this year, so it's not been something where he's been the quarterback throughout, but he's an excellent athlete. I think he's got toughness, think he throws a live ball. He's got a very strong arm. But yeah, you see him grow a little bit as a quarterback. You see him making plays. He's got the ability to take a bad play and make it a good one, there's no question about that, and he can move with it, and there's a lot of designated quarterback runs or designed quarterback runs and then there's also times where he just breaks the pocket and makes it happen. So he's a guy that there's no question we have to be able to control him if we're going to win this football game.
Q. Your defense has allowed a touchdown on the opening drive the last three games. Are you worried at all about slow starts or is that something you adapt to as the game goes on?
COACH DANTONIO: No, but maybe we need to receive. I mean, we're ready to play. Sometimes, especially when you're playing a football team that's a no huddle football team like Nebraska was, you have to...it's very difficult to simulate, and the same thing what you said for Michigan, very tough to simulate their dynamics of their no huddle offense, how fast they're coming, how the players are coming in, the different things. Everybody is going to have some new wrinkles that they're going to use against a football team in a game, so you have to be able to adapt to those things I think as the game progresses. We've been able to do that, definitely versus Michigan, pretty well against Nebraska. I thought we did that against Wisconsin, as well, as the game moved on. So that's a part of it. It's very difficult to simulate that throughout the week.
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