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October 29, 2007

Mark Dantonio

COACH DANTONIO: Relative to Iowa, I thought that first of all we came out focused and ready to play. Obviously there were some distractions this past week, but I thought our players did a nice job getting ready.
Another close game, close loss, I guess the message to us all is it continues to be a game of inches. And really, you look at the 2007 season, when you look at the Big Ten conference, when you look around the country the margin of error is very, very small in terms of getting it right. You have to be able to get it right, I think especially in a first year program. Things have to go very, very well, keep some points off the board, or if somebody is not in the right gap or a call comes in wrong, or whatever it is, it's not all related to just performance on the field. It goes across the board that margin of error is very, very small. You have to get it right, and in close games like this it's imperative.
I think also that when you go away from home, certainly in the Big Ten conference, whether it's for a baseball game or a football game, it's very, very difficult to play in those environments. I think we handled it in the first half, when I saw 200 yards up there for us and -1 for them, total offense. You look at the possession time in the first half, it was almost ridiculous in terms of possession time.
So we saw some very, very good things. But they came out in the second half and they refocused, got a little bit of momentum, and all of a sudden emotions turned. I thought we did a great job of fighting back in the fourth quarter and responding. When it was 20-17 we had to actually get the ball back three different times. We were finally able to get the field goal down there, and outstanding play by Devin, outstanding throw their Brian Hoyer, outstanding catch by Devin Thomas to get us back there. Had a chance to throw it into the end zone twice and actually threw it into it one time and then kicked a field goal to go to a tie.
But as a football team we need to continue to persevere. These are tough times, and I think that -- really, and I've said this a couple times probably this year, but it's at those times when you as the leader and the head coach and the assistant coach and the captain and the seniors, we need to be at our best.
We need to build up our young people, not tear them down, and we'll continue to do that, and I think we'll learn from these things. And ultimately when we start to win these games, that will begin to believe -- when it comes down to crunch time we'll win it.
I can only equate that to my time spent in the past in 2002 where we won every game. Right now we're learning some tough lessons and they're life lessons for all of us. Life throws you curve balls and you have to respond and you have to get up when you've been knocked down.
It was a very, very disappointing game, the outcome. Went to overtime and scored obviously, had a chance to keep them out of the end zone, they scored, then we had to reverse it and it almost felt like we were deflated there that second overtime. But you learn from these things.
I do think if you look at where we're at offensively, offensively I think it's about execution. If you look at the game of football, it's about execution on offense. There's not too many adjustments you have to make other than pass protection and things of that nature and getting in and out of plays, but it's execution. Penalties, dropped balls in the third quarter, I thought we played very well in the first half but left some points on the board there on the first drive -- off the board on the first drive, which hurt us.
You know, when you look at it as a football team, you have a football team offensively that's second in the conference at running the football; first in total offense, in yards; scoring, third in the conference. Hoyer is the second leading passer in this conference, pass efficiency; Ringer is the third leading running back, rushing yardage; Devin Thomas is all-purpose as a receiver, number one in the conference. So we've got some guys doing some very, very good things. What we have to do offensively is at the end of the game make that play that allows us to win the game.
Defensively, to me it's about awareness, it's about adjustments, it's about impeding a blocker, it's about tackling, it's about reaction time. Those are split-second decisions out there. We have some young players playing, especially at linebacker, and linebacker is a very adjustment-oriented position. You're not in the right gap, you can get creased. If you don't run the blitz that's called, you're going to hang the secondary out to dry a little bit. If you miss a tackle, high consequences.
So regardless of where we're talking about defensively, I think that those are the things that we see where there's problems, whether it's an awareness problem or a reaction-type thing.
Younger players, new concept, whatever you want to say, new defenses, new concepts. These are things that they're experiencing for the first time as I said last week. Every football team we play has a different type of offense that comes into the game that we play. Michigan is more like Iowa certainly than Michigan is like Indiana, or that Michigan is like even Ohio State. Even though they're two-back teams as such, they're different. So everything every week changes a little bit for our defensive players and how they attack things and how they respond to things. So it's a little bit of a learning process there.
You know, you go two out of 13 on 3rd down, I mean, they get two 1st downs out of 13 opportunities, you have 96 plays, they have about 55 or 60, you know, you get the ball back three times at the end of the game, all those things seem to be very, very positive. They have probably about, what, 100 yards of offense maybe, 80 yards of offense in the first half? All those things are very, very positive.
You've got to stop the run in the second half. We've got to be in our gaps, plain and simple, the nature of that. They had three big runs, one big pass. The one big pass play is a touchdown. Got to pressure the quarterback and run the blitz that's called.
But whatever the case is, it's the little things and it's all-inclusive, whether it's coaching, whether it's playing, whatever it is, and ultimately that responsibility lies with me, and I take full responsibility for that. With that being said, we have not lost the football team and will continue to play.
We're focused on the Michigan game. The Michigan game to me is the game that we've pointed toward since I got here, and I think that's the way it should be. That's the way it should be at Michigan State. It's a measuring stick for us because I do consider Michigan one of the elite teams in this conference. They have been and always probably will be. We compete against them in everything we do every day, whether it's for a recruit, whether it's for fans, whether it's for a nine-year-old's heart, whatever it is. We're going to compete against those people down the road every single day. That's what it makes this game even more important, because it's a statement game and it's a measuring stick, and I'm sure it is for them, as well, just in a different respect.
They've had a lot of injuries, certainly Hart, Henne has been out some, but they've had some other injuries. They fought through their issues with losing first theirs two games, they've responded with seven straight victories. They're a 7-and-2 football team. This is the 12th time that I've played against them, including two times as a graduate assistant, but ten times as an assistant coach and now the first time as a head coach. So very similar stats when you look at them stat-wise, very similar to what we are in a lot of respects.
Another chance for us to measure up, like I said before. We will be ready. I can promise you that we will be ready. This team will stay together and fight through the tough times. I've already seen that. In talking to our players today and talking to our players yesterday, disappointment from the Iowa game, but we will make it back.
It's a trophy game for us. Paul Bunyan Trophy is a trophy people want to bring home. It hasn't been here for a while, quite a while, and we need to get it back here. We'll set our sights on what we can change and critique what we can't change. With that I'll leave it open to questions.

Q. After the Northwestern loss when the team missed a lot of tackles, you went live in practice the next week. Do you anticipate doing some more live practice this week?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we went live some last week, too. We try to go live every week because that's really what we get our best look at. We have to be careful doing that because we can't get anybody hurt because we are thin at some various positions, but there's got to be a certain amount of it just so we can get a realistic approach to the game.
And that's really -- when the game comes there's always a process, a game pace that we have to adjust to. We were able to do that in this game. I thought we came out very focused, very much ready to play. Second half sort of turned for us. What was happening in the second half sometimes is defensively we were out of the gap. A couple times there were structural things which we have to address as coaches.
And like I said, it's all-inclusive. We've got to be able to play as a team and lose as a team, and that means coaches, too.

Q. When you look at the Michigan team, what do you consider the strongest part of their team?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think the strongest part of their team is certainly, even though they maybe have not been playing as much, but their experience at quarterback and their experience at running back. Mike Hart is a great running back, he's outstanding. Conceptually they're very tied together, a very well-coached football team, and they've had success there. So you look at them offensively and say that's where their strength is. They have outstanding receivers, Arrington and Manningham, and those guys are big-play players. Defensively they've got some big-play players.
Just like everybody, like I said earlier, different concepts throughout that people see that create different mismatches and problems. But they've gotten it together thus far and played some good football.

Q. There's a stat in this series over the years that the team that rushes for more yards always wins this game, Michigan-Michigan State. Do you anticipate that continuing this year, and can you just talk about the run offense, run defense of both teams?
COACH DANTONIO: I think when you look at all the games, it comes down to -- just like last week, we said we had to turn the turnovers battle. We only lost it 1-0; we didn't get any turnovers. As well as we played defensively, if we had just come up with a couple turnovers in the second half, we have a chance of opening the game up a little bit.
Give Iowa credit, they kept coming, they kept playing. But that's their MO. But turnovers will certainly play a key here.
I think running the football and the ability to stop the run like they did last week, we were able to run the ball first half but couldn't run it as well the second half, and they did. And affecting the quarterback; we have to pressure their quarterback and we have to protect ours.
Again, if you look at last week, they were able to pressure our quarterback second half some and get to him, and we were not able to get to theirs. I think that was the difference in the game, and I think it always will be very telling.
There are things we say are critical to winning. Obviously that's one. Field goal percentage, field goals, that's another, but there's a whole -- there's six, seven things that we look at every single week. Those two aspects are critical, sacks and running the football.

Q. Not that you would allow your team to get down after a loss like Iowa, but does it help having Michigan up this week because that's kind of an automatic motivational boost for your team?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think it does. I think that we've got some -- that's a very good point. We knew coming into the season that this stretch going to Ohio State and then going to Iowa, two difficult places to win, was going to be tough, a tough challenge. We also understand that coming back and playing Michigan, we can throw the records out but we're going to play hard and we're going to get ready to play, and our players are going to be motivated to play.

Q. Back on the run defense, Mike Hart, can you talk about him, how special a player he is and how much of a difference he makes for them?
COACH DANTONIO: They've got a couple other running backs that played well as of late, too, but I think Hart is an emotional leader on their football team, and I think he brings that emotion to the football game, as well. He's a very strong running back, runs with power, has quickness, has great vision, and obviously is a great football player. I think answering the one question you asked me about the rushing defense, I would say statistically in the conference we're in the middle. We're not at the bottom, we're in the middle. I think Michigan is maybe about fourth.

Q. Can you just elaborate on emotion again, how big of a role does it play? Does it last beyond running out of the tunnel and jumping around on the first three defensive plays? How big a role does that play over a 60-minute game?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it plays a huge role, especially in the game of football where there's stop and start, stop and start throughout every single play. You're off the field, your offense is off the field, your defense is off the field, the sideline, things go on. So I think it's a huge thing in football.
I also think -- my personal view is as a coach if you walk in there, there's certainly things I can say to get people motivated, but the majority of the motivation has to take place in their own heart because what a coach can say to them may last five minutes on the field. It's got to be about people and it's got to be about what they believe as they go through the week and what they feel about themselves. Me knocking over stuff and pounding my fists on the table for five minutes doesn't get it done. We need to get ourselves all ready.
That's what we've done. We've done it every single game. If you look at our football team, we're still a winning football team. We're a 5-and-4 football team, and we'll have opportunities all the way through.
The thing about our football team right now is we're so close to being a 7-and-2 football team, or maybe an 8-and-1 football team. I'll give you the Ohio State game. Other than that, we've played with everybody. We've made mistakes, but we made mistakes in the Indiana game, too, or the Notre Dame game, too. We've made mistakes, but we've been able to overcome those and win football games. We just have to keep persevering through this and keeping learning tough lessons, but when we get over the hump and we start making plays in the game we'll make them every time.

Q. You talked about using this as a measuring stick, the countdown clock, the "Beat Michigan" bumper stickers, how much did that come from you?
COACH DANTONIO: I don't have a bumper sticker, but how much does that come from me? When I came in here, the first thing I talked about was Michigan was going to be a measuring stick and that that's a big game for us. We're not going to overlook that game or negate the fact or hide behind the fact. We can say whatever we want; we can pretend it's not; it's a big game. It always should be a big game at Michigan State.
But I think as I said earlier, it's a measuring stick for this program because of where we're at, and we need to measure up. I said that all along. By saying that, I'm giving Michigan ultimate respect because of how they've played.
With that being said, I understand there's a difference. I've been here. I understand where this is at, and I understand the emotion attached to it and the reasons behind it.
I've never heard of a bumper sticker.

Q. Obviously that approach is very similar to what Tressel did when he got to Columbus. Is that an experience that you have to just embrace a rivalry even when it gets over-hyped and just not shy from it?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, going all the way back to -- not when Tress got to Ohio State, but going all the way back to when I was at Ohio State as a graduate assistant, there were rivalries that were embraced. When we went to Youngstown, it was Eastern Kentucky. That's who it became. If it was Akron, it became Eastern Kentucky. When I went to Cincinnati, it was Louisville.
It was a measuring stick within the conference that we wanted to be able to try and play with them because we knew that when we were able to do that, we could play with anybody in this country. And I sort of feel like that.
I guess where I've been at as a football coach over my time period of coaching, I just think that there are certain games you need to give a little extra to, point towards, and there's always times throughout the year when you have an opportunity to move in that direction, and that's what we're used to. It certainly hasn't been a focus of ours since August 1. Since August 4th we've come up here with a new focus towards that, other than maybe one day or so of practice.

Q. Last week you were able to talk going into the Iowa game, there were five wins, you had not so much a luxury but you were able to kind of relax and look at the fact that maybe you needed one more win to get a Bowl bid. Now after that game and with three games left against pretty tough teams, are you worried at all about the urgency factor maybe if the players are not in the right mindset as far as getting that sixth win?
COACH DANTONIO: No, because first of all, I wasn't relaxed last week. We take every game one game at a time, so we weren't relaxed. We didn't think the Iowa game would come easy for us, and certainly there is no team on the schedule that we can't beat.
I think if nothing else we've proved that we can be in the game with these teams. We just keep inching along, keep setting our goals every single week, and if we don't reach that goal, we reevaluate where we're going and reevaluate the goals and refocus, and I think that's what you have to do. We have to critique where we're at constantly and refocus and try and move forward. That's the only thing that we can do in a program, in year one in a program or in year eight in a program. I think you just have to say here's where we're at, keep talking and keep trying to build our team up.
And that's the main thing that I want to continue to do; I want to build our football team. I don't want to tear down our football team, I want to build it. I don't want to lose players, and I just want to keep that family unit together.

Q. You spoke earlier about the different ways in which you compete against Michigan. I'm just wondering if you can comment in general on the importance of this game when it comes to recruiting.
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I don't know, you know, the recruiting is such a complicated issue sometimes, and it's done over the course of such a long period of time usually that relationships are formed. So I think that where we're at right now with the guys that we know we're solid, everything is good. My guess is it makes statements throughout the country and for younger players as we move forward, for younger players for the sophomores and juniors in this state and certainly for players across the country.
But they're going to be a little bit more of a national recruiter than we are. We're going to look towards Michigan a little bit more, towards the Midwest a little bit more. That will be our MO. I think everything takes care of itself when you win, whether you beat Michigan or beat other teams. It's going to take care of itself, long-term winning, not just one game, and I think that's what's happening for them over the long haul.

Q. You've talked about your players learning to compete. Specifically how do players learn to win close games the way Ohio State did in 2002, and when you have one team that the standings don't match the stats by as much as yours does, what does that say?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think -- I don't know how you teach them. I think it starts to happen, you start to develop the confidence. That's what happened down there. It started to become -- you just knew that somebody was going to make a play. I don't know if -- you continually try to do things to put them in tough situations down in scrimmages, things like that. But when you put a game out in a stadium full of people and you put a lot of things on the line, it's experience at doing it, having that opportunity to do it and the experience of doing it, and I'm not sure where our experience is in that.
I just know that somebody is going to make a play. I'm not saying we haven't done it, I'm just saying somebody is going to make a play to get us over the hump. That person that makes the play is going to continue to make plays, whether it's our quarterback, just like going down that stretch at the end of the game, we make a sensational throw and catch to put us back in the game and then we run it in. Ringer has an outstanding run, we just don't get off the field on defense.
You talk about it's a game of inches, if they call the ball a fumble, and maybe it was a fumble, but it touched the white line on the second play or the first play of overtime. If it doesn't touch the white line and stays in play, the game is over. But it didn't.
You know, I don't really have an answer for you for that other than you know when it's there. You know when it's there.
And in terms of where we're at in the standings relative to these games, we're going to measure this thing at the end of the season, as I said, and we've got to play the cards that we're dealt. I can't sit here and say what does that say about it. It says that we played pretty well, and at the end of the game on one side or the other we're not putting complete games together. We did against Indiana, we did against maybe a couple other teams this year, but we've got to put complete games together. You know, one game passing hurts you, this game running hurts you. Two different concepts, two different variables there. We have to live and learn a little bit, I guess.
Like I said before, our players' confidence is not shaken. It's just the end of the game is very tough when you get scored on or something like that and then you've got to go back out immediately because of the overtime switch and you have to get refocused. It's tough. Guys in the wrong gap, like I said, we're playing some younger players, playing with a guy who had his hand wrapped up. We're playing guys that are trying to adjust their way through it a little bit.

Q. With the coaches there's the ultimate respect, and even the players don't get into the bulletin board material much anymore, but with the fans and this rivalry, there's a genuine age range, with alumni, with the milkmen at St. John's to the delivery boy in Helene (phon.). how much do you think you're representing all the frustrations of the years of Michigan being dominant in one Saturday afternoon?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I hope we represent a lot of those people. I hope that our students are here early, and I hope a lot of them come, maybe see pregame at 3:30, so it ought to be live here. It's very difficult to play in an away stadium. It's very difficult to play away from home.
Our fans will have an impact on this game, I can tell you that. They will have a definite impact on the game. For all those frustrated people, get tickets and come loud. But I understand their frustrations because I've been here before. I understand that.

Q. You often talk about it's a game of inches and just doing those small things that matter in a game. At this point in the season, how much do you think the team has improved or where do you think they're at at this point in doing a lot of those little things you think they should do?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's almost like two steps up, one step back. I think that's how it feels sometimes, two steps up, take one small step back in certain area, whether it's the play of our defensive line or the play of the receivers. We had more dropped passes in this game than we've had, and some of them were critical. So it's a little bit like that for us right now, I think maybe in the early stages here as a program.
Maybe that's just the way it is in college football today. You look around the country and you just scratch your head last week about how so-and-so could beat so-and-so. So it goes back and forth, but how does Tennessee play -- it's the same game as ours, right? Tennessee-South Carolina game, they come back and they tie it, field goal missed, so at the end of the game they win out.
But home environment, maybe makes a difference. The smallest things can make a difference I think for a football team. I think it is a game of inches.
The guy I used to work for Bob Goin at Cincinnati, he used to say that at Cincinnati -- at Florida State when he was there, they could make some mistakes. They could make some mistakes, they still had great enough players to overcome those mistakes back at Florida State at that time.
I don't think it's like that anymore many places, or anyplace. I think the margin of error has become so small that you almost have to be perfect. Any opportunity lost can come back and hurt you. We just have to understand that, play our hardest, continue to emphasize the three things that I think that we have to be built on, and that's effort, toughness and knowing what to do. Continue to coach, build young people.
As I said earlier, these are life lessons that we learn. For some people, that game is going to -- they're going to dwell on it for one week. For others they've dwelt on it for one day, and thank goodness the Lions won so I feel good. For others like myself it's going to be a year. For others, seniors, it's going to be a lifetime. It's all different for everybody. But the inches do matter. That's what we have to understand.

Q. How did you game plan differently not knowing whether Hart and Henne will play?
COACH DANTONIO: Oh, I expect them to play. I would expect them to play. We'll game plan accordingly.

Q. No one on this team has beat Michigan. That can work for or against you, or how do you pull the positives out of this team with that?
COACH DANTONIO: We continue to battle the University of Michigan? How's that? But we'll find out.

Q. Is SirDarean Adams back this week to play and in practice?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we're going to see. Game time decision.

Q. Can you talk about the match-up between your defensive line and their offensive line, Jake Long in particular?
COACH DANTONIO: They have a great offensive line, experienced. They're solid. Our defensive line, I'm sure we're not uncovering anything; we move a lot up there. So we have to capitalize on our quickness and our movement at times, but it'll be a challenge for us. There are certain aspects of the game that will be challenging, some key match-ups like there always are.
But we need to be focused. We need to come and play. We need to overachieve. There's no doubt about that. Michigan is I think fourth in the nation, so we need to overachieve. We will.

Q. Could you talk a little bit about Brian Hoyer and how you feel he's done this year?
COACH DANTONIO: Brian, I think you're talking about a first-year quarterback starting for the first time. He's thrown for almost 2,000 yards, has four interceptions. He is second in the conference in passing efficiency, so I think he has done outstanding. He has a presence at the line of scrimmage. He has good vision down the field. He has a live arm, he scrambled twice in the game on Saturday for huge play, 1st down.
But with all that being said, we've got to win at the end of the game. You know, the quarterback is an essential part of that. He's essential. I mean, John Elway won at the end of the game. It made him a great quarterback. Joe Montana did it at the end of the game. So that's where we're lacking right now.
But if you take one aspect of his game, it will be right down the stretch. But he's going to get there. I can tell you he's going to get there with that because he has excellent skills, he's got great confidence, he's a great young person, and he's a tireless worker, so he'll get there. But that's the only thing that he hasn't done.

Q. Talk about Brett Swenson and the importance of special teams in playing this game?
COACH DANTONIO: I think Brett, obviously one of those critical-to-winning things is field goals. He kicked two out of three, I wish it was three out of three, on Saturday. But special teams will be huge.
We lead the conference in kickoff returns. Punting, we've got a freshman punter, he's got to come through and be strong this week. The wind was against him last week a little bit. Punt returners, we did a nice job. You look at kickoff, Boleski is kicking the ball down the field. We've got pretty good coverage for the most part throughout this season, had a couple get out.
Brett I think has done a nice job. He does not lack for confidence. He comes in; it is what it is sometimes. He's missed a couple. But he certainly is our kicker, and when he goes out there I have confidence he's going to make the kick. He'll be fine. He'll be fine. He needs to rise to the occasion, as does everybody else, coaches included.

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