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December 6, 2015

Mark Dantonio

Darien Harris

Connor Cook

Jack Allen

Shilique Calhoun

East Lansing, Michigan

MARK DANTONIO: Yes, very excited about the opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff, first opportunity for Michigan State. Also extremely proud of our football team and our players and the way they've handled the schedule, the way they've handled the adversity throughout the season and the way that we've been able to move forward.

Great opportunity versus the University of Alabama. Obviously I worked with Coach Saban for five years as his secondary coach back in what seems like forever ago, back in the late '90s, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and the University of Alabama and who they are as a program. It'll be a tremendous challenge, but as I've said all year long, with great challenges there are also great opportunities, and we'll look forward to that.

Q. When you guys went down there five years ago, obviously different players, different team, different time. It didn't go as well when you played them in a bowl game. Do you see that program and what they've done as a bit of a measuring stick and going down to play them as a chance to kind of measure the progress made since?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, I think that Alabama has traditionally been one of the better teams in the country certainly, and we were 11-1 as we went down there that particular day and had some turnovers, and it became a rough day as things sort of spun out of control a little bit.

But with that being said, I think that's a part of the process here. That was our first game in a situation like that, although we played Georgia I think in '08, so as you move forward, you try and win regular-season games, win the Big Ten, win bowl games, and you continually try and take your program to the next challenge, and I think that's part of growth, and we're going to find out if we've grown up a little bit.

Q. Connor, you said a few weeks ago, I don't remember when it was, you said it's not hard to find a chip on a shoulder for you guys; you kind of always play with that. You had a whole one week of being a favorite in a big game and now I think it opened at like nine points for Alabama already. Is that kind of the mentality of this team, you always approach things like most people are looking at somebody else and not you guys, and does that help you in games like this?
CONNOR COOK: Yeah, for sure. Ever since we've been here since our freshman year, we've always had that mentality, to have that chip on our shoulder, and it starts with Coach D and obviously all the hard work we put in the weight room and the talks and the speeches that Coach Manny has given us, it kind of just engraves that chip on our shoulder. You said that we're an underdog to Alabama? Is that what you said?

Q. Yeah.
CONNOR COOK: Yeah, we love that role. We embrace it being an underdog, but I mean, it's kind of who we are as a program with the chip on our shoulder is kind of what we've always had, and no matter who we're facing, if we are the underdog, if we are the favorite, no matter what, we go into each and every game trying to prove something.

Q. Mark, you talked about moving past and going past the game when you guys first played Alabama, but at any point over the next 26 days do you show your team the game footage of what happened and what could happen?
MARK DANTONIO: No, I think that was a different time and place. You know, I think we've moved beyond that.

The last three years, which these guys have all been a part of up here, there's been a tremendous amount of success. You know, when you look at the big scheme of things, in 2013, we sort of climbed our way to the Rose Bowl, won the Rose Bowl, ended up No. 3. Last year we had two very big games that were against what I would call heavyweights at that point in time that played for the National Championship, and we were ahead in both of those games but eventually lost to them. So the drive was to get farther, and the drive was to play better on a big stage.

So now here we are in the College Football Playoff. We've got exactly the opportunity that we've worked so hard for since last February, and we're going to see if we measure up. Alabama has certainly had a football team that's been in that situation before, so they know what to expect. We're sort of new on the scene in that type of thing.

So there's an excitement here among our football team. I know, and there's a great belief. We've played great teams here. We play against great competition, and you can look across this country and in this conference in particular this year, and you can see the type of people that are in this conference. Played an outstanding football team last night.

We'll be ready mentally, but again, we don't play the game this Friday, we play on December 31st, and we'll find the challenges and we'll see the things that we can do, as well, and somewhere we'll meet in the middle. But we're going to have to play our best. We always do when our best is needed.

Q. Shilique and Darien, I haven't seen the film yet that the University shot of you guys watching the selection, but what was the excitement of seeing your name up there?
DARIEN HARRIS: I know Shilique was going to say he wasn't in there and I wasn't in there, either. I'm a little bit of a mind reader here. But a lot of guys sat in there, and actually I watched it. I was getting treatment at the time. I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to get treatment from yesterday's game.

But I had it up on my phone on WatchESPN, watching their news. Cool to see Marty Smith in there and the guys having a little fun, going to the team meeting room to watch it. It was a situation where last year we were the team watching another four schools get that opportunity, and this year we're the ones getting that opportunity.

We're very thankful and blessed for the opportunity, very happy to be going back to Dallas, going back to the Cotton Bowl. Like Coach D said, we're new on the scene of the College Football Playoff, but at least we've played in that stadium before. We played in AT&T Stadium last year and won a huge game there, so in that sense of it we won't be the new team on the block.

SHILIQUE CALHOUN: I think he said it all.

Q. Mark and Jack, last year when you guys were at the Cotton Bowl, you both in particular talked about how good of a bowl it was, just the way it was run, the way it was handled. I'm not saying the Rose wasn't or the others haven't been, but you were specific about that bowl. What was it about that that made it so special?
JACK ALLEN: Great atmosphere. Playing down there is always fun, but I would just say the hospitality overall is probably one of the biggest things. Everybody down there is nice and they treat you right. I think that's the kind of thing that sets them apart.

MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I would say the atmosphere, the environment that they create. They go above and beyond to make it a great, great place for our players. They've got a basketball court in there, the whole deal.

It was just a great bowl game, and the people were so hospitable. I just can't say enough about it. I even found a Cotton Bowl deal here today, so I pulled it out and just came in. It was last year's. But we're excited to go back to the Cotton Bowl. That's going to be a great positive for us, and we have practiced in there and not only played in that stadium but we practiced in it the entire time that we were there. We are at least used to the stadium, been in there. Certainly they are, as well. They've played there before, as well, but we have been in it.

Q. It seems like the reaction on campus this afternoon was kind of low key to the achievement that you guys accomplished relative to other achievements you guys have enjoyed over the last three or four years. Is that an example that the expectations have grown so much that people here expected you guys to win that last and the fact that you're making the playoffs was an expectation?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think that -- I'm not sure how it was here last night. I heard things. But it was crazy in Indianapolis. I think that probably everybody is pretty tired today. When the light came out, everybody was just like, okay, they're in. So I don't think that anybody really had to make an announcement to know that Michigan State was going to be in the playoff. I think last night it was a done deal when we won that football game. I think everybody celebrated and tried to get two-for-one in last night.

But I do believe, though, I agree with you, I think the expectations here have certainly grown. They're much higher than they were previously when we first came here. It was can we get to a bowl game. That's what it was. When these guys came in 2011, I think all of them came in 2011, were freshmen at that time, that was the first bowl that we had won down at the Outback Bowl, and we made it to the championship game that year and played Wisconsin.

So that was new ground, as well, for us.

But that's the great thing about college football. That's the great thing about sports is that you can always try and continue to grow, and that's what we've always been about here, just try and expand your life experiences and try and grow as people and try and become more mature and handle bigger problems. Some of the problems are on football fields, but handle those problems and grow as people.

These are life moments for these guys to be up here and to have this type of media attention as we go to the Cotton Bowl and this type of national exposure for the program, for the University, for all of us, for myself included. And these are things that will serve us for a lifetime, an experience that we'll look back on.

Q. Connor and Jack, last year you guys set a lot of records. Michigan State has won a lot of ballgames, 38 out of 42, but nationally there's kind of a "yeah, but...." There's no SEC win on your résumé. How important is it to get a win over a program like Alabama to maybe establish your legacy, or as Coach Dantonio says, to prove where the program measures up to?
CONNOR COOK: Well, I think obviously we didn't play, but we beat Georgia in 2011, that was our freshman year, so we do have a win on our résumé but we didn't really play in it, in the Outback Bowl. But coming to a school like Michigan State you want to play against the best. You want to play with the best, and I think the Big Ten obviously has gotten put back on the map, and playing against teams like Ohio State and Iowa is great, and you come to a program like this to compete at a very high level and to play against teams like Alabama and schools like that that you can possibly meet in a bowl game. A win over an SEC team is great, especially if it is Alabama, who over the last couple years, 10 years, whatever, however many years it's been, they have a lot of National Championships under their belt, so a win like that could be huge for this program.

JACK ALLEN: I would say we don't have an SEC win on our résumé, like you said, but at the same time we've played a lot of good football teams these last couple years, and I think we've proven ourselves year in and year out. I think we're looking forward to playing Alabama.

Q. Connor, I know you were asked this after the game last night, but in retrospect, how much do you think the shoulder affected you last night? How does it feel now, and how much better do you think it can get in 25 days?
CONNOR COOK: Right. Looking at it, you know, obviously it wasn't 100 percent, but when you're out there with a dinged shoulder you are kind of cautious. You are kind of thinking in the back of your mind, if I get tackled, could I possibly injure it more; if I land on it a certain way, could I possibly injure it more. There were times when I was a little hesitant on throws and trusting the pocket, but these next few weeks are going to be huge for the progress that I've made over the last three weeks from how it felt the Ohio State week to now has been very good, so I feel like I'm going to make even more improvements resting my arm, not throwing as much, and just being in the training room, living in the training room, getting the treatment that I need to get back to full health.

Q. I know you're supposed to address a specific person, but it's kind of general. Mark, you've talked a lot about how building this program is for not just this team but the guys who have been here in the past and have helped get it to this point. I'm wondering if any of you guys or you, Mark, have heard from former players or former teammates since last night, what they've said about the fact that you guys are in the playoffs and how those conversations have gone.
SHILIQUE CALHOUN: I talked to Darqueze Denard, Mylan Hicks. A lot of guys communicate with us on a daily basis not just because we're in the playoffs. I think we keep constant communication with our former players because of the relationship that we've built here at Michigan State with them. But they were just happy, proud that we had this opportunity, and then I think 'Queze said it to us, I think, maybe before the game; he was like, man, I wish I was on this team with you guys. I wish I could be playing with you guys.

I think they're just proud. They're proud of their accomplishments and also what we've accomplished over this year.

But like I said, it's always communication between us and former players because the relationship that we have and the relationship that Coach D has helped us build, so they're just more so proud of us and just looking forward to us pushing forward.

MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I would echo that we hear from a lot of people, a lot of people. I shot Kirk Cousins a text that said, "You like that?" Big happy face, you know.

So you hear from a lot of different people over the course of time. These are special times in our lives, and I think we're connected.

Q. Shilique and Jack, just talk about the mindset of this being a team that expects to win and when you guys have your backs against the wall, I know that Rasheed Wallace used to say if it ain't rough, it ain't right. Just kind of the mentality you guys have developed this season in embracing that adversity and really rising up to get the best out of everybody on this team in those situations and how that might serve you going forward against a team like Alabama in this game.
SHILIQUE CALHOUN: I wouldn't say we have our backs against the wall. We have just as much to gain as Alabama, an opportunity to make it to the National Championship, but I would say that we just understand it's going to be a grind. Each and every game it's going to be a grind. It's not only this game that has been tough or that's going to be tough for us, it's going to be every game we compete in because everyone has top-level players and top-level coaches, also.

For the guys, we understand that we're playing for something bigger than ourselves, that we're playing for something bigger than just a Big Ten title here. We're playing for the opportunity to make it to the National Championship, and I think that's pretty much all that needed to be said to those guys for them to want to push forward and understand that we need to reach higher, as Coach D would say.

Q. Jack, last night when you guys had your backs against the wall you really rose to the occasion; how has that happened so much with this team and how can you guys lean on that?
JACK ALLEN: I would say since all of us have gotten here since 2011, nothing that we've got has ever been given to us. We've had to fight through adversity, fight through hard times, and we've earned everything we've gotten, and we just showed again last night nothing is ever given to you; you've got to go out there and earn it.

Q. When you were on the teleconference a little bit ago, when you hear Nick Saban's kind of grumbly voice on the other end, does it take you back to 'Nam, so to speak, of 1995?
MARK DANTONIO: Oh, yeah, it takes me back. (Laughter.) I was Nick's secondary coach for five years, so I learned a tremendous amount of football: Organization, preparation. So much of what we do in terms of preparation, in terms of technique and things, even though it may be different defenses and those type of things, there's so much terminology and technique that's involved in really defensive and offensive things, and my mindset as a football coach has been shaped by the people I've worked for. Certainly Jim Tressel I've talked about a lot, but Nick Saban is probably the guy, too, that from a defensive system certainly, and then also from just an overall football system, you know, you want to be a spread team, you want to be able to run the ball, but power run, you want to be physical, you want to be tough. You need to have great knowledge of what you do. Those are the three things that he constantly preached, the three things that took no ability, and those are the three characteristics that I constantly talk to our players.

A lot of what I learned when I was here, and let's not be -- it was difficult. It's difficult. There are challenges. You guys know that. But I think my relationship with Coach Saban, with Nick Saban, is excellent. He's truly a mentor of mine.

Q. Mark and Shilique, in my line of work I like to think the harder we work, the luckier we get. You've had a lot of amazing things happen, quirky things, the Jalen Watts-Jackson touchdown, the one off Shilique's head that resulted in a touchdown, interception off somebody's back again last night. I think it happened twice this year. I guess what I'm wondering is do you think destiny is on your side at all? Do you believe in that garbage?
SHILIQUE CALHOUN: To clarify, I batted that ball, it wasn't off my head. I got a lot better vision than you just made it seem like. But no, I don't think it was luck. I think that we work hard and our coaches put us in a great position to make plays. Things happen, and of course by the grace of God we were able to be in the right position at the right time. The biggest thing is just keep working, keep pushing forward, keep working hard and good things will happen. But I definitely wouldn't say our football team is lucky because we go out and we compete and we work hard for every inch that we get.

MARK DANTONIO: Well, I think I said it last night; I'm not afraid to sit up here in front of everybody and say I think we have God's favor at times. I really do believe that.

Along with that is this football team knows how to win. We'll play every down, every single down, whether we're behind at Baylor by 20 points or whatever the case. We're going to play every single down, and that's what comes with -- when you have a long line of winning.

Now, Alabama has that, too. I'm looking at their statistics, it's sort of daunting here. But -- so that's why we're in the College Football Playoff. That's why they're in it. But our players understand how to win football games. They understand how to make plays in big games on big stages, and that's been something that's been occurring here for some time. I don't know what our record is against top 10 teams. Is it 7-1 now? I'm asking; is that what it is? Seven of the last eight? That's 7-1. We've played on a big stage, played in front of a lot of people, and we're used to success, and if we don't have success it bothers us and we're going to keep pushing.

It doesn't ensure success, but we're going to keep pushing and we are going to have an edge to what we do, and that's just how this has been built.

I go back to the question that was asked of me before. There is a lot of what we have done here has been carryover from the people that I have worked with in the past, and so there's a lot of similarities in that fact.

Q. I know a lot of the story line is going to be the similarities between these programs and the way you've built it, but I was looking at these recruiting rankings, and Connor and Shilique are in the 900s and Darien is 617 and Jack is the star at 545, and you go up against a program that annually recruits the best in the country, so I guess I'll go with you, Darien. You're a journalism major; you can address this. How do you put this into perspective when you're dealing with these athletes that are rated so much higher than you and so much more has been expected of in their career?
DARIEN HARRIS: There's one thing that I remember Joe said before the Ohio State game: They put their pads on just like we do: One foot, one leg has got to go in the football pants at a time.

Just when I think of guys that played Alabama, I think of the Kouandjio brothers who I played with in high school, I think of Cyrus Jones, who's their starting corner now, starting punt returner who I played against in high school, and I'm sure guys up here know guys probably that play for them. At the end of the day, they're still our peers. They're still guys that we played against and with in high school. We still have the same dreams, goals and aspirations coming out of high school, and we're still the same level and caliber of players.

They're ranked two, we're ranked three, and it's for a reason. It's been extremely successful what we've been able to do this season. We don't get the big recruits and we talk about that all the time, but that's not really our thing and it doesn't really bother us, and the fact that the coaches can take us as two- and three-star recruits and develop us into high-caliber players is a testament to this program.

Q. Jack, Connor mentioned it when he received his award last night, and Coach Saban made reference to it when they asked him how much of Michigan State he had seen, and he said, "The 22-play drive." When you look back at that drive and going forward, what does that say about this team and about this program, that that drive is something that people identify with as far as the success?
JACK ALLEN: I would say for us, it just shows that we're a tough football team and we're going to play every play. Like Coach D said, no matter what the score is, no matter what the circumstance is. We're going to go out there and play, and if we've got to go 22 plays, we're going to go 22. If we've got to go 30, we're going to go 30.

Q. I just wanted to ask about Trevon Pendleton and the toughness he showed last night, obviously not fully healthy but especially on that last drive being out there. What did you see from him last night and during the week leading up to the game?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, he didn't practice on Tuesday as I remember, and Wednesday was a little bit limited, but he gutted it out and he found a way. When you get to these moments in your life, you're going to find out some way, somehow to get on the football field if you're capable, if you're able. That's what happened, and we've seen that across the board.

Really we saw that against Penn State with Connor. We've seen that with Jack. We've seen that with Shilique and Darien and so many of our players. Injuries are going to happen, and everybody goes through them and every football team has gone through them. My perspective is it makes our football team stronger. It's provided a lot more experience.

We're going to get R.J. Williamson back for this game, so that'll be a boost in our secondary, so that's a positive, as well.

You know, injuries are part of it, but our guys will gut it out.

Incidentally I want to add that we've got some outstanding very high-quality committed recruits coming here that are very highly regarded. Incidentally, also, as you walk down that hallway over there into our facility, there's about 34 names of guys who are playing in the NFL, guys like Le'Veon Bell, and Darqueze Denard, and Trae Waynes and Kirk Cousins and on and on it goes. We've got a lot of players that are playing at the highest level, and that's why we're successful, as well. We've got good players. They've been developed, they've matured, or they were what they were when they came out, so we've got good players, and they expect success.

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