Nov. 19, 2013
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday inside the Huntington Club at Spartan Stadium. Dantonio recapped his team's performance in the win over Nebraska and previewed this Saturday's game at Northwestern
The No. 13 Spartans (9-1, 6-0 Big Ten) will take on the Wildcats (4-6, 0-6) on Saturday, Nov. 23 at 12 p.m. EST at Ryan Field; the game will be televised on ESPN.
MSU, which owns a 6-0 Big Ten record for just the third time in program history (1965, 1966), secured at least a share of the Big Ten Legends Division title with its first-ever win over Nebraska last week in Lincoln, 41-28. The Spartans can earn a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 7 with at least one win in its next two games, or one more loss by Minnesota.
The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday's press conference:
COACH DANTONIO: Really just to sort of gets things started post Nebraska, again just excited the way our football team prepared, then executed as well. More the preparation and the focus as we went into the football game. Tough environment to play in, away from home.
I saw that we were the second Big Ten team to win in that environment since they've come into the league (Northwestern, 2011). Excited for that opportunity. Also the way we met the challenge.
I think we've improved as a football team and really progressed throughout the entire year. It's pretty amazing how you sort of have gone from one spectrum to the next to the next now, where in September we were sort of trying to climb a ladder. There were some opinions basically that certain aspects of our football team weren't getting things done. Then October played a little better. Now November we need to play our best. I think that's where we're headed. We need to be able to continue to do that. That's the challenge for us because people become complacent. We need to guard against that and continue to handle success.
Northwestern, tough football team. Going through a little bit of tough times obviously, losing very close, much like we did last year. Conceptually tied well together, well coached. I think their players have great mental toughness. It will be another great challenge for us as we go forward this week up in Evanston.
With that, I'll take some questions.
Q. You mentioned September. The way the quarterback race played out, didn't you operate somewhat with the understanding that the schedule, would you have maybe handled the situation different if the schedule were different, playing with house money?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think the way we did it was the way we had to do it based on what we had seen in the spring and what we had seen in the summer.
I think the most important thing we have to do as a football staff is continue to try to play all of our players and give them opportunities. In the end, those opportunities have to translate into starting opportunities and we have to go from there.
That's what we tried to do. Took a little bit of time. But in the end, that's what we did. I guess it's paying some dividends now. That's just how we handled it.
I don't care whether it's the quarterback position or whether it's a wide receiver position, offensive tackle position, we've tried to create opportunities for players. I think that's what they come here to do, is to have equal opportunity to play football.
Also other aspects of their lives that we're involved with, but the main focus for them is what's going on on the football field in August.
Q. How much of Northwestern's season reminds of you your season last year?
COACH DANTONIO: A lot of it. They've had some injuries that they've endured. They've had some very close games, overtime games, lost on the last play of the game. So tough things to deal with.
The thing that you continue to be impressed about Northwestern is they're resilient, which I thought we did the same thing last year. They come to play every week. They're prepared. They're emotional. They're positive. Coaches are positive. They have an opportunity to win every football game.
So you have to look at that aspect. I think the understanding is by our football team, I hope we're mature enough to understand this, is that every single game we've had with them has been a tough football game in the last six years. I don't expect anything different this week.
Q. As the season progresses, you know you have 12, you hope for 13 or 14. Do you do what Izzo does when he gets towards the tournament, back off a little bit with the physicality in practice because you're going to be adding more games?
COACH DANTONIO: I think the biggest concern is are we burned out or not as we go through a long season. How do you keep your football team fresh? Is it putting on a pair of sweat pants over your pads, saying you're in sweats? I don't know. Or is it just continuing to push through it.
We gave them a week off. We only practiced one time on that week off. So they had a lot of time to sort of regroup. Then we went to Lincoln and played I thought a pretty good football game, but probably an emotional experience for them. Now we need to regroup again and get ourselves under control and go to Evanston with the same mindset.
If you're going to be a great football team, you need to handle expectations as they come to you, whether you're 5 6, you're trying to become 6 6 trying to go to a bowl game on the last week of the season, or if it's the situation we're in now. You need to be able to control it, handle it, move forward.
My mindset is we do what we do. Practice will be just as long today as it was (last week). We'll back off a little bit as we go through the week like we usually do. I don't want to say after a football game that we were under prepared. We're going to do what we do and make sure we turn over every stone both as players and as a staff, fundamentally and technique wise.
I think when you back off things, the usual things that happens is you back off the technique work, you back off the A, B, Cs of your position which will get you beat. Try not to back off of that.
Q. Other than the obvious health of this year compared to last year, when you look at the offensive line, what would you say is the biggest differences? Jim Bollman bring some things that have helped? Have you ever been part of a team that rotated guys like this with that kind of success?
COACH DANTONIO: I think Jim Bollman has made a difference. I think Coach Staten has done an outstanding job. We're more experienced than we were last year. Jack Allen, I think it was his 20th start on Saturday. He's playing center. Travis Jackson, I don't know how many he's got. Now he's playing a little bit of guard. Blake Treadwell has had 26 or so starts. They've remained healthy.
Fou has started every game when he's been healthy. Dan France has been healthy. Again, another starter with a lot of game experience.
We've got experience up there. The one guy is Jack Conklin, I think he's ahead of the curve. Even Donavon Clark has some experience. Connor Kruse has gained as well. So we have eight guys we play up there, which is a positive for us. We remain healthy.
But I think our coaches do a great job, not just those two coaches in particular, but our entire staff does a great job.
It's any man's game in there. If you got an opinion about our offensive line, you're the running back coach, in this case the coordinator, you have your opinion and you offer it. I think that's what our staff has been very good at.
Q. But are you surprised by the results of your rotation, because it is unconventional.
COACH DANTONIO: No, because I think what we've done is we've taken guys who have been starters. So it's a tough deal sometimes. I think we have a very unselfish team. There's great chemistry in that room. Coach Staten has created that chemistry along with our older players in that offensive line room. They just want to win. Bottom line is guys just want to win. They'll sacrifice for the good of the group as long as we're winning or even when we're losing. I think that's their makeup.
Q. Your program's record in road games, in November games, is very impressive. Is that something that you build for this time of year or do you think that's a function of the identity of your team, which is defense and running the ball and plays well this time of year? Is that the intention of building a program that way?
COACH DANTONIO: That is the intention, first of all. That's the mindset we've tried to have since coming here. That is also something we've developed, especially the road game atmosphere, road game environment that we've created on our football team.
I think you have to be built for that because every season you're going to have that September where you're playing teams that aren't in your conference. Even when I was at the University of Cincinnati, you're playing teams not in your conference, Ohio State, Big Ten school, Virginia Tech, whoever it was. You get serious, got to get a little bit more serious about what's going to be the outcome of your football season when you enter your conference. You certainly better play well down the stretch if you're going to be a champion.
We put ourselves in position to compete for a championship a number of times here. We find ourselves in the same place again. It's very important we understand it just doesn't happen; you've got to continue to reach and chase excellence.
Q. When you were 4 1, it's like you were standing on a firing line here. Never mind what we thought and said. Inside your bubble, are you surprised this team has been able to run off six in a row and peak like this?
COACH DANTONIO: No. I was more surprised that we lost last year because I've always felt very strongly that our football team could win. Always been very confident of that. I've said that over and over. We can win against anybody we play against if we do the things we have to do. That's a mindset and culture that's been established here lately.
This is the fourth time we've won (at least) nine games in seven years. So our players are used to winning. That's been established by the players that have come before them a little bit. Yeah, we've taken steps back in the process, but we've always been able to plant our foot and drive forward rather than just exist. We've always been able to drive back forward to it.
I knew we would have an opportunity to win. I knew if we could handle success, continue to play well, as long as we continue to grow in aspects of our football team, we would have success.
I remember sitting here at one point in time saying when we come out of it offensively, our offense is going to flourish. Our guys are catching the football, doing some of the things we are doing. You watch Langford running with the football, you have to step back and say that was an impressive performance by so and so or so and so in certain games. If you look at those aspects, you can say we've grown.
Nothing ever stays the same. I guess I'm not really trying to disrespect the media. But the media paints a very bleak picture in September, starts to say in October maybe, now they're painting a very positive picture.
Like I said last week, got to chew on that gum and spit it out. You have to be able to do that, because if not things can catch up on you right way. If you believe you're not good enough, you won't be. If you believe you're too good, you'll stop working. Somewhere between there we need to find our identity and continue to move forward, strive forward.
Q. Before the season, Coach Samuel mentioned he thought Aaron Burbridge was an unquestioned No. 1 receiver. Is he not healthy at this point or other guys have taken steps forward that he maybe hasn't?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, he's healthy. I think the question is how is he playing relative to everybody else. That's something that he has to rediscover a little bit, and he will, because he'll compete.
Last week he was healthy, I think full time, for the first time in probably three weeks. Need to catch the ball a little bit better. Tony Lippett is catching the football, not going to pull him out. You have to find your way back into the mix, which he will. He will just add another piece to what has become the strength on our football team. He'll just add another piece of that. I'm very, very confident he'll do that.
He's an excellent player, excellent receiver. But he wasn't playing at a high enough standard last week for me to put him in there and start him. It's pretty much as simple as that.
I keep saying all the time, I don't care who plays, I really don't. That's their job to play, to rise to their level of ability to play on this football team. What I do care about is their attitude and how they go about their business. His attitude is very good. I expect to watch him compete this week. But his attitude is excellent.
Q. When you look at the special teams, so much is made of Mike Sadler, what he's done. Taybor Pepper has had a pretty good game. Geiger has been solid for you. Can you talk about what the specialists have done? Secondly, what did you see in Mike Sadler to make him such a running force for you?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, first of all, our special teams, we've been good on special teams really throughout our time here. Taybor does an outstanding job of snapping the football. He's hustling down the field. Big plays down the field, fumble recovery, downing a punt as well. He's a consistent snapper. He's going to shoot the ball back there very effectively. Some would argue as good as anyone in America. He's done an outstanding job.
Geiger is a freshman. Right now he's maybe 11 out of 12 I believe in field goals. So he's doing an outstanding job as well. He's got toughness. He is a very confident player.
But I really think Mike Sadler is the epitome of when you talk about special teams, the things he does. He's a holder, so he's a steady hand out there, controlling figure. He's also the punter. Has the most punts inside the 10 yard line, I think it's (19), in the country. Then he can boom one when he needs to. He's been tremendous.
As far as his ability to run the football, you know, worked one time, so we worked it again. But we don't work him out there in practice doing it too often. He has a presence and he's confident. I think that, as much as anything. It's not the play. The play doesn't make something work all the time. It is the player.
Although the fake was supposed to go up the middle, just so we're all straight, it was designed to do that. But he made the play. Did a good job.
I thought that Connor Kruse on that play made the dominant block, along with Paul Lang and Blake Treadwell. Shilique tripped before he got on the backer. Then Geiger nicked the edge guy. Taybor climbed up to the Mike and got in his way.
Q. How much of the credit goes to Terrence (Samuel) for the emergence of these wide receivers?
COACH DANTONIO: A lot of credit. He has stayed with them, been patient with them. He continues to work them, working on the little things. They've always had ability. I've said it over and over and over. You come to our practices, you watch these guys, you watch them perform, you see big time ability.
What needed to transition, they needed to transition to doing that at game time. They've done that. I think they're used to playing in an environment on TV, big crowds. They look forward to that opportunity.
I think Terrence has been very patient, very fair with our players through the process.
Q. With Jamal Lyles, a similar situation to Riley? Maybe goes back to defense?
COACH DANTONIO: Maybe he does. I think Jamal will be an outstanding tight end. A lot to learn when you're moved over there in September. A lot of nuances with blocking, routes and such. But we try to get him involved. He's in there. There is a plan for him in the game plan every week. But we just chose this past week, he didn't hit the field in that respect. I do think he'll be an outstanding tight end. He has skills.
Q. With everything that went wrong last year in close games, is there a lesson there in taking advantage of an opportunity when you get this close now because you don't know what next year brings?
COACH DANTONIO: There's a lesson. Even outside of that is these next two weeks, not three weeks, our next two weeks, these players will remember for the rest of their lives. They have an opportunity to close out or not. That's our choice, their choice. So we got to be prepared for that.
These two weeks are things that you work for really for your entire life. You work to try and get in this situation where you're 9 1 and you're playing for a division championship, or next weekend you're playing for something else.
The stakes continue to get higher as we go through the process here. That's what you come here for, that's what you work for. Things always have to sort of fall in place in order to get to that. You have to be injury free. You have to win the close games. You have to get some bounces here and there, too. That's part of it, too. Those things have to happen for you to reach the type of success we're having right now.
So hopefully our players will recognize that and remember this for their entire life. That's what you try to create as a coach, lifetime moments. I don't care what they are, you want them to say, I remember when we did this, even if it was just for fun. I remember when we did this. Hopefully our guys understand that and gravitate towards it.
Q. I think it was Sunday night you talked about some of the decisions you made as far as the program's exposure. Now that your name is starting to come up in Coach of the Year discussions, videos, locker room dances from you, Twitter account. Are you comfortable with the new and improved Mark Dantonio?
COACH DANTONIO: I've always been comfortable with myself, even if I don't smile that much. You know, the whole dance thing really started first game. We just sort of kept it quiet. Somebody got it out of the bag after the Michigan game. That really is from Clemson, Dabo Swinney, when I talked to him at a Nike function, he says, You know what we do, I believe when we win it has to be a celebration, highlight of the day, this is what we do. I thought that was a great idea. So we did that after the spring game this year. So that's when we started doing it. Our players did it, loved it. We don't do it for any other reason but to celebrate with ourselves. Don't do it for show, for a camera. We do it for ourselves.
I went on Twitter for a moment. If you notice, I don't tweet that often, okay? It's a way to refute you guys if I ever need to (smiling).
Q. Looking at Northwestern, is it similar at all to prepare for them, play against them, to what you just saw in Nebraska?
COACH DANTONIO: In some respects it's similar. In other respects they go faster. Everybody's got a little bit different identity in terms of what they do. They're a no huddle offense obviously. Some similar concepts. Other things are different. Different players, those type of things.
You study what people do. Inevitably they change game to game, then you adjust. But that's the norm.
The emphasis, bottom line defensively, I think if you tackle, if you're in the right place, tackle well, play the ball in the deep part of the field, don't have missed assignments, things usually work out pretty well.
We had one coverage blow (at Nebraska). We had one great catch by them (Kenny Bell). We had one bust on a defensive end closing, a linebacker misaligning, created three big plays for touchdowns. But if you can eliminate those things, good things happen.
Q. But how much will playing that type of offense help you moving forward?
COACH DANTONIO: I think every experience you have gets you ready. Certainly when you play a team that's similar, like Nebraska was somewhat similar as you said to Northwestern, then you can move the process along.
The following week is going to be different. You have to readjust again. I think that's the key. When you're an older player, you can change week to week. When you're a young player, it's much more difficult to change from August in camp when you're playing against yourself and all of a sudden you get ready to play against somebody else, an entirely different offense. Week to week it changes.
Same thing holds true defensively. That's why your offensive line needs to be experienced, blocking an over front, under front, bear front. Different rules for all these different things based on the protection or the run you have called.
Q. You've talked about handling success as it has grown here for you and your team. There does seem to be a looseness or comfort with things maybe than in previous years for you and your team. When you say 'handling success,' what do you mean? Is it simply working hard? You are going to get more accolades as time goes on.
COACH DANTONIO: To me handling success means continuing to improve beyond where you're at. Handling success would be to win the next game, not be flat, to come ready to play the next game.
Coming off the Michigan game, not to say, Hey, we beat Michigan, then go to Nebraska for a big challenge away from home and fall flat. It's rising to the occasion every time. Doesn't mean we're going to win. But preparing and playing hard and having an identity, playing I don't want to use the word 'boldly,' but playing confidently, taking calculated risk, going after things.
One of the best things we did in the game this past weekend, every time they got close, we responded. We had the lead from start to finish. Every time they closed the gap, we responded. Somebody made a catch, made a play.
We got down third and 20. Lippett makes a catch. Cook makes a great throw. We get stopped on the 40. Curtis tips the ball back, on the 1-yard line, we get a fumble the next play, we get in the end zone the next play.
At every turn, we were able to respond. I think that's what good football teams do. That's what people do when they're ready for challenges. I just want our guys ready for challenges. I don't want anybody to think that we've arrived. We've not arrived. We're a long ways from that. So we need to handle success. That's what I keep saying.
Q. You've said to have an identity. Don't you feel like you have an identity already?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, like I started this whole thing, in September we had an identity, didn't we? Then October we had a little bit like, well, maybe. Now people are buzzing. People feel like we have an identity.
So which identity do we have? Just depends on what time of day it is really. If we stub our toe this week, then we backslide, so...I would just say it takes a steady hand to hold an overflowing cup. How is that one?
Q. You've won six in a row. They've lost six in a row. The whole world likes you in this game. Northwestern, I keep thinking they're going to beat somebody. I believe they're in their home finale. How dangerous is a team with pride playing below expectations and needs to beat somebody?
COACH DANTONIO: They need two wins to go to a bowl game. They're in that kind of mode. Like I say, we got to handle success, handle adversity going up there. I know how they play. We've played them for six years. They've never taken a play off. They've never come and not been prepared. Never played without emotion. They've never not executed.
Every game has been an extremely tough game for us. We've won some, we've lost a couple. That's what I expect. I expect the same thing. A very well coached football team, a lot of pride in who they are as people and what they do. That's not going to change.
Our football team better be ready to play. That's the message to our guys. That's what we'll try to carry through the week.
Again, you go back to what was just asked. We need to be able to handle adversity, because there's going to be adversity in every game, but we also need to be ready to play. That will test our maturity as individuals and as a team.
Q. We had an example this weekend where we had one local team successful in attempting a fake field goal. Another team was not. Is there a certain mindset that a head coach has to have in that he's confident he can be as successful as you have been using trick plays?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's timing and players make plays. But I do think at some point in time, as the coach, you take calculated risks to try. In my mind for me, I didn't want to go up by I think we were up by 6. I didn't want to go up 9, they score a touchdown, be up by 2, where all of a sudden it feels like they're catching us. I wanted to re-seize the momentum. That's what I did. Didn't mean it was going to work. I'm sure like everything, those things are drawn out, rehashed. Hopefully it works correctly. But there's always a risk involved.
Q. Has there ever been a point you can try a trick play to establish your 'toughness'?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think what you're trying to establish is you're trying to establish that you're willing to push everything on the table and risk things. I think that's a mental toughness. That's a competitive toughness.
I think people respect that. Sometimes it doesn't work. But your players respect that because your players want you to take risks because every time they step on the field, they're taking a risk. I think by you doing that, you're saying, I'm going to push it out there for you.
If they don't work, that's a bad thing. We don't want anybody faking anything against us. That's why we work very hard at these, okay? But I don't know. That's the best answer I can give.
Q. Looking at the local guy that they've got on their roster, Paul Jorgensen. What have you seen in his transition from the tight end to the line? COACH DANTONIO: He was recruited as an offensive lineman. Tight end last year to be that big guy blocking like we use Mike Dennis in some respects. He's transitioned back to offensive line, starting right tackle. He's a young player. He's continuing to get better. He's improving game to game. I think he's got a great future ahead of him.
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