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MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE
October 24, 2017
East Lansing, Michigan
COACH DANTONIO: Real quick, not been up to Northwestern since 2013. So we're looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge up there. Pat Fitzgerald has always had great football games with Michigan State.
When I look back at our times there, they're always extremely well-coached, always goes down to the end it seems. Last year things got out of hand a little bit here from a defensive point of view, scored some points.
But look forward to going up there with the challenge. I think offensively outstanding quarterback. Guy that's been around for a while there, established, Thorson's an established guy. Justin Jackson as well. I think he's eighth in the all-time career rushing leader in the Big Ten. I believe he's eighth right now.
So the challenge is to stop those two guys offensively. Defensively, I think they're a football team that's going to be where they're supposed to be, on time.
They've got some bell cows at each position whether it's defensive line, linebacker or in the secondary. And they'll rely on those guys as they play through. But very good defensive player. Mike Hankwitz does a great job with that.
When you look at them right now, you look at they're a 4-3 football team. Lost to Penn State, Wisconsin. Duke, which I think -- I didn't see the same players playing in the Duke game that you see now playing especially on the defensive side of the ball. And they beat the Maryland team and Iowa team this last week and Nevada and BG early in the season. So 4-3 football team, but I think they're a better football team now than they were at the beginning of the season. And be a great challenge for us.
Q. During the Rose Bowl season, your season started a lot like this. Your defense was holding people down. And then you had to flip the switch a little bit offensively. On Sunday night's conversation, you said something brilliant lightning about Dave Warner asking you what to do. And you said: Go get the points. Do you have to flip the switch a little bit in the down half of the season like you did in '13 to be -- not change who you are -- but be a little more aggressive for points?
COACH DANTONIO: I think we're always trying to attack to get points. If you look back at '13 we were a young football team, had a sophomore quarterback. A lot of guys that nobody really were not entrenched at the wide receiver position. We had no tailback at the time until Jeremy sort of started. We started coming mid-year or a little before mid-year, started moving in that direction.
And I thought everything started hitting sort of full throttle. I do not think we played our best football game yet as a team.
Brian Lewerke has not been on fully. We've not run the ball fully. We've not gone through a game where everything is going right for us. We need to have one of those football games as we get here in the second half of the season.
It would be great to have this one and the next one and the next one. But we're always trying to score points. I walked over here this morning or I came over this morning, I was in the offensive meeting room saying, hey, score points. It's just that simple.
The head coach comes in there says: Hey, score some points. It's like I keep saying run that play over again, when that guy catches that post, runs for a touchdown.
But there are a lot of nuances there. I think the defenses this year in college football have caught up a little bit with offenses. You're seeing lower scores around the country. Particularly, I think in this conference, in the Big Ten, you're seeing some lower scores.
And there's some people still scoring a lot, but I think people have caught up a little bit in that regard. So people are tackling a little bit better, whatever the case, however you shake it all out. But I don't think there's any question that as we go forward we want to score more. Just want to win.
Bottom line is can we score one more point than they do. And that was a great illustration of that last week.
Q. Going off that same question, you mentioned when Jeremy took flight in 2013 that the offense kind of lit up. Are you kind of seeing that maybe a little now with the run game? And how critical is it for Brian's development to have the run game open up the passing game a little bit for him?
COACH DANTONIO: I think when you can do one thing it complements the other. If you can't pass at all, then you get loaded up on against the run. If you can't run it at all, then you get loaded up on.
I think the biggest thing, when you look at us, we have the will to run the football. We ran it 44 times last week. There's a will to do that. And as long as we have a will to do that, good things usually follow that. Because you've got to defend the run if you are running it.
So we're going to stick it up in there. We're going to be balanced. We're going to do what we do. At some point in time everything's got to work on certain particular plays and we've got to bust one into the second -- and we bust one in the second. It happened a couple times this past week. But more often than not -- the week before it happened a lot.
But we still are the fourth-leading team in the conference here running the football. We're the fourth. So it's not like we're not running the ball at all. We want to run it more. I think if you want to see the bigger plays, I think the productivity is there, when you look at some of the averages and things of that nature, when you look at what's this average or what's the efficiency of that and we look at all these different things. Some of the efficiency is there. But then something will happen like, we'll bobble the snap or we'll snap the ball over our head, or something happens, we take a negative yardage play, and all of a sudden you're sitting back there third and eight rather than third and three.
So it's not like we're not -- and then you want to see the big plays, too. And I think everybody wants to do that, every football team in America.
Q. We've talked a lot about the youth on this team and how many young players you're relying on. But those few seniors you do have, whether it's Frey, Brian Allen, or a couple other guys, how vital have they been in terms of bringing these guys along, getting them to understand how important each week is and there's not a lot of them but how vital have they been?
COACH DANTONIO: They're critical, because regardless of what you see, even though we don't have a lot of seniors playing, they're still in positions of leadership. They've been there. These guys have been to Rose Bowls, been to playoff games, Cotton Bowls, and those type of things and also been without a bowl one year.
They've experienced a lot of different things. I think there's some wisdom in that. And the other thing they've done they've been extremely unselfish as they've gone through, there's not as many, but they've been extremely unselfish. Usually, when you look at them, you ask your seniors to have the best year you've had as a football player at Michigan State.
I think Brian Allen is playing at a very high level right now. Coop is playing very, very well. Chris Frey is probably playing as good as he has right now. Those are our three seniors that are really playing a lot.
Gerald has been nicked up a little bit and other guys are playing in and out, but they're doing what they can do, and it's been a big positive for us.
Q. With Justin concentrating on one side of the ball this year, how much growth have you seen out of him, just focusing on corner?
COACH DANTONIO: He played very well this last week. I think he's playing very good football. Tackling well. Playing the ball down the field. We ask a lot of our corners. I think he's very good. He's 6'3". Can really run. He has great ball skills and tackling effectively.
And last year, I think, in this particular game I think I said: Hey, you're starting. And just sort of threw him out there. We moved him after three or four games. He was playing wide receiver, I think, in the Indiana game last year.
So he was just learning the position last year. I think he's much more complete right now.
Q. I want to start with senior leadership. Gerald goes out after having missed some time being nicked and tweets about his pride in this team and being a leader. What's it say about his character? He's not playing, but he still is leading.
COACH DANTONIO: He's still leading. Doing that since January. Been a big part of us sort of recollecting ourselves in the offseason when things were going on and everything.
I think he had a lot to do with sort of just keeping everybody together. He'll play for us. He played a lot as we go.
And I still think all three of those guys are sort of starters. I don't really care who plays. Get the hot hand and you're going to play. And he should be back this week. So he's been just hampered a little bit. But he's been very, very good. Like I said earlier, very unselfish.
Q. Cody White moves up the depth chart. Would you talk about his progression, please.
COACH DANTONIO: Cody had an outstanding game, I think, this past week. So we moved him up. I think really our wide receiver situation is going to be pretty much unchanged in the fact we're going to play a lot of them. We'll play a lot of different guys at different positions. They're going to be interchangeable. Probably see six or seven different guys playing. And if a guy gets a hot hand or guy gets the ball thrown to him and is catching the football, then he's going to have opportunities.
But I thought he played very well last week. I thought, even more than his catches, he was an aggressive football player on the field. And you need to have those.
So he'll get the start. But I don't think it's going to mean that anybody else is going to play more or less.
Q. How much of what's going on with your defense is as simple as the pass rush is so much better with 18 sacks? If you go back, look at last year's defense, how much of it was just the eroding of confidence that you guys couldn't get to the quarterback in comparison?
COACH DANTONIO: I think when you have success, you get more confident. I think last year, you know, there was a lot of different things going on. We had injuries at our linebackers. We had three starting linebackers out for, right through the middle part of the season.
We were playing young players up front and players, if they weren't young, they were players that like a graduate transfer was here. So he was learning a new position as well.
We had two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman playing. We had defensive ends that were extremely young. We tweaked some things in terms of what we do it and how we do it. I think it's complimented our package. And we understand better. I do think one of the things you're always looking at is teacher/player ratio, coach/player ratio, moving Mark Snyder to defensive ends. And having Ron Burton coach the defensive tackles, especially in this era of RPOs and spread football, allowed them to concentrate on more what they're seeing individually.
So you've got about an 8-1 coach/player ratio rather than 16-1 in meeting room and in drills and things of that nature. So rather than splitting time and this kind of stuff, with Coach Tressel taking the defensive ends or something like that, we have a full-time guy at defensive end.
In this day and age that's helped us, and I think you see the results of that on the field. But I think inevitability it goes back to technique and fundamentals and I think we're playing very well fundamentally and there's a lot of confidence.
When you look out there right now, you really only have about, what, a couple of guys that played last year. The rest of them are all new. And I think they're playing -- playing with a lot of confidence and they're playing fast. If you can play fast and know where to go and do it well, good things happen.
Q. Northwestern is a different dynamic than any other school in terms of half the fans are often Michigan State fans because of how many alums are in Chicago. How much impact does that make on the games, how different a road environment is this than any other place you guys go?
COACH DANTONIO: It's going to be a lot different than Minnesota, because there will be maybe half, maybe not half, but 30 percent, 40 percent is what I've seen up there. So you've got 10 to 15,000, 20,000 Spartan fans up there. And that makes it exciting. Spartan Nation will be here.
I know a lot of people will come from here to Chicago, make it a weekend. I know a lot of Spartans are in Chicago. Makes it exciting for our football team. We have a number of players, not a lot, but five, six, seven, guys from Illinois that are playing a lot for us and that will be exciting for them to go back.
Q. Question along the same lines about the atmosphere. I'll phrase it like this. How do you expect the atmosphere in Northwestern to compare given team 6-1 and maybe the expectations weren't as high as opposed to years past where it was the Rose Bowl season I believe in '13, where do you see any comparison there, if any?
COACH DANTONIO: I think in the Rose Bowl season maybe we were playing them either in the next to last game, I think the next to last game, I believe. So I think right now it's going to be -- it's an exciting football season right now. All our goals are right in front of us right now. So we just need to take one step at a time and people want to get on the bus and come on. So I think it will be pretty green up there, personally. But we'll see.
Q. For an update on your battle of inches, you've won four close games in a row. I guess I'm going to say --
COACH DANTONIO: Anticipating a fifth close game, but we'll see.
Q. I'm guessing those are inches you didn't win last year. Is this team starting to believe in itself?
COACH DANTONIO: I think so. Again, I go back to: When you're successful, you get a little more confident. When you make a play at the end of the game, you think, hey, next time around you'll make another play. You find ways to win.
That's always been the formula here. Last year you could make a case for, hey, we lost by one point to Ohio State. We lost some other close games along the way and we didn't find ourselves in the fourth quarter. This year we're doing that.
So I think that's leadership. I think that's confidence. That's emotion. That's enthusiasm, all those intangibles that come with playing football. That's why this game, when you were talking about the fundamentals, like we were talking about before, you talk about the leadership of the seniors or the young players that we have and all these things come -- every football team has basically it all bottled up. And somehow it spills out or shakes out. And right now we're 6-1 football team.
But I think we're a realistic football team. We understand what we have to do, too. I don't think we're getting ahead of ourselves. So we need to prepare this week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are big days for us and we need to get ourselves ready to play emotionally.
Q. Two-parter on punting. First, looking at Jake Hartbarger's game on Saturday and how effective he's been, especially with punting as much as he did in that game, how did he deal with that?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, I think I talked about this earlier in the press conference. He's, I think, to the point where he's not rattled anymore as a young player going out there and having to punt. He's extremely confident in his abilities and he's got a big leg.
You pooch punt from the minus 45. He put the one down on the inch-yard line, he's been good with that. He's been very good putting them down inside the 10. We need to be better in terms of keeping the ball out of the end zone. Because he's done that a couple times we had opportunities.
I think he's got that approach right now; he looks forward to going into the game and showing his skills. And that's confidence. That's a big positive.
Q. And, secondly, you're on your fourth guy listed as the leading punt returner here. I guess how are you managing that position right now? Is it based on situations? And both for Jake and for those punt returners, what are the challenges of playing at Northwestern with the wind that comes in there?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, it was windy last week up at Minnesota, very windy. And I thought we caught the ball well. But I think going back there is about catching the football, being consistent with it, and then making good decisions as much as anything. And we do. We're on our fourth guy. And we try to take something off of Darrell's plate a little bit. Darrell Stewart's plate a little bit, because he was being used in all these different areas.
So we went with the younger guy. We dropped one in the Michigan game. Decision-making. Not ability. And went inside the 10 versus Minnesota. And then we did the same thing again this past week.
So, you lose yourself out on the field. Maybe when the ball is punted, your concentration is so good. But they all catch the ball very, very well and there are three freshmen back there of the four. And they have a lot of confidence in themselves. I thought Cody did a nice job back there with the exception of the one where he caught it on the 5.
So we just keep working. But again we're going to be young. Every team is going to be young at some point in some position. So next year we'll look at it like we have experienced punt returners. But right now you just sort of say, okay, are you feeling good about this, yeah. Good, Coach, so let's go.
Q. When Pat left, Harlon said he couldn't try to replace his emotion. He said it's just not who I am I want to be real. Over the past several weeks the players have talked about Harlon being real and genuine and he's emerged as one of the best defensive coordinators in the America. Can you talk about his emergence, saw him as a player, coach and now as a defensive coordinator?
COACH DANTONIO: Harlon is a very emotional guy, first of all, with his players. He's in the box. So he's down on the field a little bit sometimes. Not this year yet. But he's a very emotional guy. Pat's emotional as well. We all have our certain emotional moments.
But I think what he means is he's just going to be him. I think the players have a great deal of respect for him, having played here. And his interest in them as people and his faith-based character.
But I think all of our players right now, I think Mike Tressel is doing a tremendous job as well too as co-coordinator, but I think all of our coaches have great relationships with our players. And I think that dynamic is one of the reasons you see, first of all, our coaches stay here. They have not left.
So there's great continuity here because of those relationships, and I think how hard we play gives you an indication of I think you play sometimes based on that relationship, what you're asked to do. Our guys will play hard. Won't always do the right stuff but we'll play hard.
Q. I know injuries are not your favorite topic to say the least, but was there concern this past weekend and then moving forward just with the depth at tight end with both Matt and Noah getting banged up and leaving the game?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, there's a little concern but we should be all right.
Q. Is there going to be -- I guess are you trying to get the tight ends more involved in the offense, seems like you've been kind of --
COACH DANTONIO: Our tight ends are involved in the offense from a lot of different perspectives. So we play we've really been playing four of them. So they're involved. One is a big one.
Q. You had mentioned in August how you spent more time here this summer. Harlon mentioned the other day that coaches even adjusted their vacations this summer. I know what that's about. But are you seeing that it's paying off?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think it's paid off. It was adjusted -- really we adjusted our schedules a little bit because of the new rules that were involved and being able to meet with your players for two hours a week. And so we did it in half-hour segments so that we would make sure that we're touching them. I thought it was important that we touch our players during the summer and that we were here when they were here as much as possible.
So we tried to do that and we gave -- nobody lost anytime or anything like that. We just took it in other areas. But I thought it was good. I thought it really helped our young players. I knew we were going to be a young football team.
So that's why we had spring practice last year at such an early time. And then after spring practice we were able to go into more of that OTA-type of mentality a little bit. Then go spring recruiting. Then when we came back, then we gave them pretty much May off and came back in June and had a little more of that. Then got our freshmen here in July.
So we had a little bit more time with them in a teaching environment, and we were around them a little bit more. But I think moving spring practice up earlier helped our football team, because they were able to sort of build an earlier foundation and then back off on it and evaluate what they had done in the spring, but I think that helped.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports