Mark Dantonio Weekly Press Conference Coverage
No. 21 Michigan State Plays At Rutgers Saturday In Regular-Season Finale
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday inside the Izzo Family Media Center at the Spartan Stadium North End Zone Complex to review No. 21 MSU’s win over Maryland last week on the Spartans’ Senior Day and preview this Saturday’s game at Rutgers.
No. 21/22 Michigan State will look to close out the regular season with nine victories as the Spartans travel to Rutgers on Saturday, Nov. 25. MSU improved to 8-3 (6-2 Big Ten) with a 17-7 victory over Maryland on Senior Day last Saturday at Spartan Stadium, while the Scarlet Knights (4-7, 3-5) were shut out at Indiana, 41-0. The game, which is being broadcast nationally on FOX, will begin at 4:05 p.m. EST from High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Saturday’s game marks the ninth meeting between Michigan State and Rutgers. The Spartans lead the overall series, 5-3, including a 3-0 mark in Big Ten play. The Spartans are 2-1 in games played in Piscataway. In its only trip to Rutgers for a Big Ten game, MSU defeated the Scarlet Knights, 31-24, on Oct. 10, 2015. Last season, the Spartans shut out Rutgers, 49-0, on Nov. 12, 2016, in East Lansing.
In its 121-year football history, Michigan State has won at least nine games in a season 15 times, including six under 11th-year head coach Mark Dantonio, the most under any Spartan coach. MSU is looking to win its ninth game in the regular season for the 13th time, including the seventh under Dantonio. The Spartans claimed Rose Bowl wins during the 1953, 1955 and 1987 seasons in picking up their ninth victory.
Junior running back LJ Scott moved into 12th place on MSU’s all-time rushing yards list after collecting 147 yards on a career-high 29 carries in the win over Maryland. Scott ranks 12th at MSU with 2,424 rushing yards, tied for 13th in rushing touchdowns (24) and 14th in carries (494).
Sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes tied his career high with two sacks and three tackles for loss against the Terrapins last Saturday. Willekes, a former walk-on, ranks tied for second (0.64 pg) in the Big Ten in sacks and and third in tackles for loss (1.32 pg).
According to the NCAA, MSU has played the eighth-toughest schedule to date in the FBS (opposition with a 65-41 record; .613). The Spartans have played three teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25, including a victory over No. 12 Penn State.
Michigan State 11th-year head coach Mark Dantonio is 4-1 in his coaching career against Rutgers (3-0 at MSU). Dantonio went 1-1 against Rutgers during his three seasons at Cincinnati (2004-06), including a 30-11 upset win over the seventh-ranked Scarlet Knights in 2006.
The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday’s press conference:
Mark Dantonio: Last week of the season. Standing here last year, we were 3-8 last year, now we’re 8-3 sitting here. A little bit different feeling certainly.
It’s been 10 weeks since our bye week, so we’ve been going at it for 10 straight weeks, sort of grinding, everything. But I think our football team is ready to play its final game. We’re looking forward to it.
I think one of the main things we keep talking about is momentum, continuing to keep momentum as we go into the bowl game, really, relative to how the season has gone this year, to finish going like this (pointing up) rather than going like this (pointing down) is very, very important. Keep the shine on this football season. We’ll continue to try to do that.
Rutgers, I’ve got a lot of respect for Chris Ash, what he’s accomplished as a coach. He’s in his second year, working the culture, everything that you have to do to change the program as he moves forward.
Very competitive football team in every football game. You watch film non-stop, but even watching the Ohio State film, early in the football game they’re hanging. As the game progresses, there’s some mistakes and things like that within a young football team. Whether you’re watching Michigan, or you’re watching Penn State (games vs. Rutgers), regardless, they come to play and compete both sides of the ball.
Jerry Kill, their offensive coordinator. What he has done at Minnesota goes without saying. Well-coached team. Good concepts. Play hard. We’ll have to go and play very well over there to get win number nine, and that is the goal.
I’ll take some questions and we’ll go from there.
Q. You have told me multiple times about you know you’ll be judged by wins, but it’s about building young men to you. After the Ohio State game, one of your players told me last year, himself included, it was pointing the fingers at everyone else. He said this year it’s us pointing them at ourselves. I asked Kenny Willekes after the game about that quote and he agreed. To see the change in record you already referenced, but from an accountability, growing kids to men, how proud are you of that with this team?
Mark Dantonio: I think like I said last week, whenever, throughout this season, any time you can get up off the mat and succeed, I think that’s a major point. That’s a life moment. Those are things that you can draw on the rest of your life if you’re a part of this. That’s a big positive. It’s a positive for our entire program.
If you’ve always had success, then how do you handle difficulty comes into play. If you always handled the difficult issues, never had success, that’s not good either, but I do think you learn things from experiences, positive and negative. We’ll just keep working.
I think that you always grow. I don’t think growth ever stops. We’re finishing our 11th season, but there’s still growth in this program. That’s the impressive thing, because, especially in college, young players come, and you see them as a freshman, then they get ready to be sophomores, juniors or seniors, seniors go on to the next thing in their lives.
Point of emphasis is what our seniors have been able to accomplish. A rock, pushing a rock up over a big mountain, letting it fall down the other side. Hopefully we have awesome momentum and it will carry us forward.
Q. Keep turning that clock back to your feeling a year ago. Ended up being 3-9. The experts in here...
Mark Dantonio: Yeah, there’s a lot of them (laughter).
Q. We thought six wins would be great. How much did you believe a year ago that you would be standing in this spot going for a ninth win?
Mark Dantonio: To be honest with you, last year I felt like we could win every game. Even last year, I went into every single football game, I’ll give you an example, Ohio State game last year, we had a chance to win that game at the end of the game. Even the Penn State game, separated, we were ahead at halftime, we’re playing right there.
I have never really taken the approach that we’re out of this football game, count that one as an L, as a loss. Same thing can be held true this week, this year. Never went into a game thinking we couldn’t win. Never went into a game thinking this is a wash and we’re going to win.
It’s just the way this game is built sort of. I think maybe coaches are built, but certainly this particular coach is built like that. That’s what we’ll do. It’s rewarding to flip it right now. We flipped 3-8 to 8-3. It’s rewarding to see that, to see there’s something that all your hard work comes to fruition and all the things you talk about and go through as a group, you see that sort of move forward. I think that’s exciting for any program at any point in time.
That’s something that we can point to, like I said before, a little bit of a life moment, a challenge for all of us as we move forward.
Q. So you don’t think is a surprise that you’re 8-3?
Mark Dantonio: No, I don’t. The expectations are there. Our players believed that they can flip this back.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about Felton Davis and the season he’s had. The last couple of weeks, the passing game hasn’t been there. Do you worry about them getting out of sync a little bit, not being in rhythm any more with the last couple weeks off in a way?
Mark Dantonio: No, I think again the experts in the room probably thought we were going to be throwing 50 or so passes every game. You can see that you need to be balanced, especially playing up here at times.
Felton has had a great season. He’s a big-time receiver. He’s had some breakout games. This past game was difficult because of all the weather conditions and everything, the week before I think pass-rush got caught up in things, whatever.
But he’s had a great season. He’s a big-play guy. We knew that when we recruited him. We felt that. That’s why we took the redshirt off of him as a true freshman because we felt like he was that good to be able to be playing in that championship season of ‘15. He has just continued to grow.
I think he’s very comfortable right now with himself. He’s doing a nice job leading. He’s got a great attitude. He comes to work every day and practices hard. He’s always up. Always up. Exciting and fun to be around, but he’s got a unique skill set.
Q. Was his catch a touchdown last week, do you think?
Mark Dantonio: I don’t know. You know, I’d say yeah (signaling touchdown). I don’t want to go against the officials, I never want to do that (laughter).
Q. Having gone through the initial rise with this program, what is the benefit to you and your staff? Are there traits you recognize as you’re doing well again that you’re able to grab hold of, say that this is important, recalling 2010, 2011? In terms of recognizing similarities from the rise of the program.
Mark Dantonio: Yeah, I think it’s tough when you lose games, and we had not lost like we had last year, we were more even. But any time you go through something like that where there’s a lot of frustration, I think you bounce back a little stronger. I think sometimes you have to go to those depths to find yourself a little bit, to reach down.
I think that’s happened with our football team. That’s happened with every team that we’ve had like that. The 2009 team went through some things and bounced back in ‘10. The 2012 team lost some close games, bounced back in ‘13.
But I think people sort of find themselves. They really look at themselves a lot harder sometimes when they’re not successful. Once they have some quiet time, some time to recollect themselves, critique themselves, we’ve done that as an entire program, you work at it.
Football is a grind. You start working back in winter workouts, spring ball, summer, all these different phases you go through. Throughout every phase there’s days, there’s meetings, there’s different people getting to you as a person. Our strength coach, position coach, the different people in the program, the head coach, all these different people are touching our players. They have some time to sort of reflect. I think reflection probably is as much as anything in terms of what allows us to take that next step.
Q. Could you talk about Brian (Lewerke) a little bit. Have you had a chance to watch game footage from last Saturday, how he’s been after that performance?
Mark Dantonio: Oh, yeah. I’ve watched all of it. Brian Lewerke is an excellent quarterback. He’s a great game manager. Probably what I should have said last Saturday night was that we got great game management from our quarterback position. Great scramble on the third down play, the first drive. Another quarterback run for a 25-yard touchdown. No turnovers. Got out of trouble another time on a scramble. Just couldn’t throw the ball very effectively because of the weather.
We only attempted four passes in the second half. That was by design. Again, we had a three-possession lead. It was bad out there, the footing was poor. So we just didn’t go in that direction.
But I have complete confidence in him. Think he can make plays. We’ve seen him make enough plays in 11 games that would indicate to me that he has a big, big future here, not just at this school but in this conference. I’m excited about that.
I think he has guys that he can throw the football to. Then you compound that with the ability to run the football last week, which was needed. We needed to take a step in that direction, and we did. I think maybe we’ll peak in our 12th game, maybe we’ll peak in our 13th. I think we still have not peaked yet as a complete football team. Maybe you never do, I don’t know.
Q. Looking at Rutgers, they’re going through a similar situation with their quarterback where you were about a year ago at this time, and you know (Giovanni) Rescigno pretty well from his time around here. What have you seen from that quarterback spot, for you on the defensive end playing towards not really knowing who the guy is going to be there?
Mark Dantonio: They’ve used three (quarterbacks). They have a transfer from Louisville, (Kyle) Bolin, and then Rescigno, but he’s been good. I think he’s been solid. He gets out of trouble. He makes good decisions. He’s throwing the ball effectively when they’ve asked him to.
They’ve been more of a run-dominated football team until third down. They have good strong tailbacks. Their offensive line has three starters returned and has been solid. I think he’s done a nice job. I believe he’s sort of solidified that he is the starting quarterback, he is the guy.
Q. There’s a chance that this conference will not have a team in the College Football Playoffs for the first time, but three teams in the top 10, could have four in the top dozen or so. As you look back at this season, what does it say about this conference?
Mark Dantonio: Tough conference. I would bet you, not a betting man, but I would bet you there’s a Big Ten team in that Playoff. I just think it warrants it. When you look across the college football scope of things, you’re always going to want somebody from the Midwest represented from this conference. If you look at this conference, it had three teams in the top 10 for the majority of the year on and off. I think that’s a power conference. So you want somebody represented from this conference. You want somebody represented from down South or the East Coast or from the West Coast or far West. There’s five different areas, but you want people representing every area because it’s new.
What is the point if you have two teams from the same conference in who have already played themselves in the Playoff, what’s the point?
That would just be me. Of course, that will raise a lot of speculation out there. That might be the biggest news coming out of here, but that’s just me. That’s just a guy sitting here.
I think with the Big Ten Conference, you’re going to play against great teams, great coaches, great environments, great fan support every single week. There are teams in this conference that can play across the country with anybody. That’s been proven.
Q. Program question. Reconstruction this year after an aberration last season, 11 seasons now. General consistency with sustained strength throughout. When you realize the competitive realities of college football, how everyone expects to win, when you realize the competitive realities of having a hundred young men on campus under one tent, there are going to be occasionally incidents that you regret, how much pleasure, gratification do you take in the program strength? How much do you lament there wasn’t a smoother continuum throughout these 11 seasons?
Mark Dantonio: I think you’re always looking at your body of work and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done, these are the things we’re proud of.’ You’re also looking at other areas and you’re saying, ‘We could have done better.’ I think that’s natural.
Whether it’s we could have done better win-loss this season yet still, we could have. I think there’s a combination of both. I think you look at things and say, Hey, if we would have done this, maybe we could have -- if we wouldn’t have ran a zone pressure against Alabama, I know people out there will say we wouldn’t have got caught with a double-seam alert, or pick up a third-and-8, maybe it’s not 10-0 at half, maybe we hang in there. I think you always go back and look at things, I’m talking about the Playoff game against Alabama. Maybe you look at things and say, ‘Wish I could have done these things.’ But then you can point to other things and say, ‘Man, look at the things we have done.’ It’s a combination of both.
I tend to look at this program right now as on the rise (pointing up). That’s a positive. Got a young football team, a team that believes in itself, that’s confident, a team that understands they will get better. That’s probably the biggest thing that you can look at, whether it’s Brian Lewerke, or offensive line, defensive line position, whatever group we have, there’s a group of people saying, ‘We’re going to get better because of experience, because we have another year to prepare.’ That’s exciting.
Q. You called last week’s game a program game, bouncing back from Ohio State. Does this still fit the bill, finishing off of that?
Mark Dantonio: Yeah, it’s another program game I think. As I told our football team yesterday, we’ve come so far, be ready to play. Doesn’t guarantee winning, but be ready to play mentally and emotionally. Expect to play well, get yourself right. This is a program game. You don’t want to take any shine, as I said earlier, off of this season. We want to go into the bowl season like this (pointing up) going forward.
Q. Besides the obvious, getting a win, is there any particular one aspect of the game you’d like to see guys improve on?
Mark Dantonio: In this particular game?
Mark Dantonio: I just want us to play a perfect game, that’s all. If we could do that, that will be great, all right (smiling)?
Obviously we need to throw the ball effectively, run it, not turn it over. Usually when those things happen, you can play pretty well. Then on the defensive side of the ball, no big plays, get some turnovers, stop the run and I think we’d have it going, and then play well on special teams. If we can do that, we’re all good (smiling).
Q. Ever played a perfect game?
Mark Dantonio: Not very often (smiling). There’s been some.
Q. Because he’s a local kid, Khari Willis seems like he didn’t get a lot of attention, but he’s made a lot of plays. How good has he been this year and what is his ceiling?
Mark Dantonio: Khari is solid. I think he does a great job just from a standpoint of leading. He’s another one of those younger players, he’s only a junior, he’s played all three years. He’s been a staple in our secondary. I think he has toughness, understands what we do. He’ll play anything, anywhere, any time. You could put him back on kickoff returns probably, that type of guy. Tough minded, tough on and off the field. I think he stands for everything we believe in. I think inevitably he’ll probably be a captain here.
Q. This time of the year, you’re on the road a lot. When it gets to Thanksgiving week with these guys, everything they give up throughout the course of an academic year, how do you try to approach holiday times, not just this, but with Christmas and everything else you have?
Mark Dantonio: Well, first of all, we’re very thankful for what we’ve been able to accomplish and for all the blessings that we’ve had. I think we reflect on that as a group, as a team.
But we’ll practice very early, we’ll get them in early in the morning, they’ll be done by noon Thanksgiving. The majority of our team will go home or to a home, one of our players’ homes, within an hour from here. I think we have almost every player taken care of in that respect. No player will sit at their home. Some will go to coaches’ homes. We’re just going to take care of them.
Guys who aren’t traveling, they have an opportunity to go as well. We’ll be back on Monday morning at 7 to make sure we’re back for classes, have a meeting, then sort of set the calendar for the next number of weeks until bowl practices.
We have exams coming up. We go to Christmas, bowl practice, giving them off four or five days for Christmas, then travel to the bowl game, off time after.
Pretty much the way our program is set up, about every two months, with the exception of this season, you have a week period of time where you can sort of get away. There’s some off time, as well, some downtime mandated by the NCAA.
Q. What’s your perfect Thanksgiving dinner? You talk about your perfect game, but what’s your perfect dinner?
Mark Dantonio: I don’t think about that stuff. Just have it ready when I get there (laughter).
No, you know, the turkey, all the stuff, stuffing, all that stuff.
Q. Dominique Long and Antjuan Simmons are both guys really following an eerily similar path to Greg Jones pattern. Talk about their development.
Mark Dantonio: We really have an outstanding freshman class when you look at it. We started three freshmen. Kevin Jarvis has had a great year. Josiah Scott has had a great year. Cody White. Other guys. Antjuan Simmons playing more and more plays, I think he might have played 20 some plays last week. He plays from a position of power all the time. He’s a very good tackler. Saw his kickoff return, he’s been very, very good on special teams.
Dom Long, number 9, same thing. I think he’ll be an outstanding secondary player for us. We’ve played him a little bit at corner here in the last couple weeks. Safety and corner. But he shows up on special teams. He’s a very explosive guy, a long jumper and vertical jump type of guy. He’s a very good tackler. One of the better tacklers on the team, football skills.
Like I said earlier, I think we have a very young football team that’s got a lot of excitement. Lot of growth yet to go. There’s a lot of excitement with that. They both played very well, as you talked about. Those aren’t the only guys. There’s some other ones, as well.
Q. Thanksgiving is here. Last year when you talked about Thanksgiving, you referenced your faith and family, even though there wasn’t a lot on the field to be thankful for about your team. What are you thankful for this year?
Mark Dantonio: Really, I guess you’re thankful for the way our football team has handled themselves in a difficult situation, beginning with spring practice. The way our seniors have represented, the things they’ve done, how they’ve handled themselves off the field in terms of organizing themselves, coming into this season with an understanding that they had a path to follow and they were going to be deliberate on that path.
I love our players. It’s been a very fun team to coach, very fun team. Get a lot of smiles, laughs every day. They’re energetic. They come to practice. They come to play.
When you’re winning, it helps. It’s been a fast season. But I think, again, what am I thankful for? I’ve always been thankful just to be the head coach at Michigan State. I’ve been humbled by that. Humbled by everything that comes along with that. Thankful for my family. Family and my team.
Thanks, guys. Go Green. Thanks for everything that you do this year, let’s get another one and flip it.