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September 16, 2008

Mark Dantonio

THE MODERATOR: Here to talk about Notre Dame and a quick recap of Eastern Michigan, head coach Mark Dantonio.
COACH DANTONIO: First of all, just recapping, Eastern Michigan. Obviously it was a wet game and it got wetter. So I thought defensively we handled some adversity, played very well. I think on offense the second half in terms of running the football, doing some things. Ringer had an outstanding game. I this think he showed his versatility, not just in running the football, but having great balance in those conditions and everything.
It's on to begin to focus on the present, which is Notre Dame. This is the sixth time I've been involved in this game. I think every time I've been involved in it, it just is a little bit more exciting. I think it speaks to the tradition that is here, going all the way back to the '60s with the 10/10 tie, all the different people that have played in it. I really do believe it's one of the reasons, when you look at the past at Michigan State, it links everybody together. I've talked about that a lot. One of the reasons is rivalries like this. Guys have played in it, guys have experienced it. They've made big plays, they've won, they've lost, different things. We can be a part of that, which is exciting.
I think Notre Dame has been impressive. When you look at them right now, they're a very confident team. They're playing well on the defensive side of the ball. I think particularly their two safeties, McCarthy and Bruton, are very active. Their linebackers are active.
Offensively obviously their quarterback is playing much better. They're getting big plays out of their receivers. They're taking shots down the field. Their runningbacks are running physical. They're two games in, but it looks like they're having fun.
Last year when we played them, it was not the case. It will be a great challenge for us up here. Great environment. Our students will be out en masse, I'm sure. I'm sure our crowd will be outstanding as well. It's what college football is all about. We're excited about the opportunity to play, the preparation.
I'll just open it up for questions.

Q. You've referenced the Notre Dame game quite a bit since you got here as an important game. They're coming off the schedule. They didn't want to play Michigan State any more. Is that something, because you do carry such a strong voice in the schedule, you will rally and lobby them to put Michigan State back on?
COACH DANTONIO: I'm always going to try to embrace the schedule we have. But hopefully they'll always be on our schedule in years to come. I know they'll come off a couple years. They're pretty much a traditional team on our schedule. But I think they do come off for a couple.
I just know, I can think back to every time I've been involved in a Notre Dame game. '97, going there. '98, coming here. Coming off the Oregon game, when Amp Campbell had his problem. Julian Peterson's breakout game, blocking the punt. The '99 came, the 2000 game, then last year's game. I can remember all of those.
I think whether you win or you lose, you have a tendency to remember those games because they're special. They're special to Michigan State fans and to Michigan State players. Everybody who has been a part of them remembers those.
It's exciting for us.

Q. Looking at Notre Dame's offensive and defensive line, how good are they? How do you evaluate them? Last year they weren't that strong, but how are they this year?
COACH DANTONIO: They didn't give up a sack last week. I was impressed with Michigan's defense. They played pretty well. The quarterback is playing much better because he's a year older. I think if you watched him towards the end of the season last year, he played much better towards the end of the season, which is the natural progression. When you're a freshman coming in, forced in that environment to play early in your career, that's tough. He played better towards the end of the year. I think he's playing with a lot of confidence right now.
Offensive line-wise, they may have lost some starters who started against us last year, but everybody that they have playing there played last year. So I think they're more experienced. The runningbacks run hard. Playing physical.
Defensively I would say the same thing, playing very physical, getting a lot of plays out of their backers and safeties.

Q. Back to the rivalry. A lot of rivalries are nasty. I would stay Michigan/Michigan State is. There have been a few nasty incidents in this game in the last few years. By and large, isn't this a pretty respectful rivalry? Wouldn't you say there isn't the typical nastiness but more of a mutual respect?
COACH DANTONIO: I think from the games that I've talked about that I've been involved in, there's been a mutual respect. I felt that last year. I hope we portrayed ourselves in that way. I felt like that in the games, I guess the four other games I was involved in. It was more about being excited to play and respect for who they were, what they stand for as well.

Q. With the 2006 game, does that linger with this team?
COACH DANTONIO: I hope it does. We talk about it. Not because it was anything in regards to Notre Dame, but it was sort of something that stood as a point of reference for our football team in terms of everything that came after it. We're an undefeated team at that point. Everything that came after that sort of became a negative spin for our football team, for our program. I think that was the rallying point last year.
It wasn't the Notre Dame team, per se. It was the point in time and what happened after that that was a rallying point for our team. I think we still have enough players on this football team that have experienced that. Hopefully we do because it needs to be personal. With all being said, it needs to be personal. Every game needs to take on a personal flavor if you're going to play with great effort. At least that's my experience. If it's just another game, you know, it becomes a little bit routine at times. I think it's got to become personal.

Q. Obviously field conditions played a big role in your shutout last week. What do you think your defense has shown in the last two weeks progress-wise since the Cal game?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think we've been able to handle adversity. If you look at us as a defense, we've had some plays go against us, but we've been able to hang in there and play. If you continue to do that enough times, you're going to develop confidence in the red zone. If you look at us in the red zone right now, probably defensively if you looked at us statistically, we've been pretty good. That's one of the things we can build on.
I think a sloppy game like we had last week, it can be a little bit of an either/or type things. Either the defender makes the play or the offensive guy slips, or it's vice versa a little bit. I think you saw that on both sides.
You know, as I've said before, all these teams we played are well-coached football teams. They all have the ability to move the football and do some things.
Whether it's San Diego State playing Notre Dame or whether it's Eastern Michigan, whatever it is, you know, everybody has players. All you got to do, again, is look around the nation and see the parity that there is. Y playing against X. Y shouldn't beat X, and they beat them. We were fortunate to continue to win. We'll take 'em.

Q. Javon's game is creeping up nationally, lots of people talking about Heisman stuff. How do you see him handling the success he's had so far this year?
COACH DANTONIO: I think he's always been a guy that has been successful here. If you look at last year, he was very successful. As I said after the game, what makes Javon such an outstanding player are the intangibles, the toughness, the attention to detail, the work ethic. That ability to stay humble is one of those.
He comes to work every day. He's an extremely humble person. He does not really want all the attention focused on himself. He wants the attention to be on others. So I think he'll handle it fine. I think he'll be very, very good about it. I can tell you, it will not go to his head. That's not the type of person he is.

Q. You talked about the development of your defense. Where is the pass-rush in terms of that development?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, last year, we were talking about this last year going into this game, we had probably sacked some people quite often. This year we played against two teams that had not given up many sacks last year. So I guess you got to give and take a little bit there.
But we need to apply more pressure. I think this game, we need to continue to get better offensively and defensively. So I guess the point being is that we need to continue to play with more effort, more attention to detail as we move forward. Regardless of what you play, offensively, defensively or special teams, you need to become a better football team as the year goes along. Hopefully we're going to be doing that.
You know, it's maybe the people we played, people that were playing for us, but it's not from a lack of effort. Things play out the way they do a little bit, too.

Q. Offensively are you looking for more balance? Do you feel like you need to open things up more, understanding last week it was out of necessity, but do you need to throw the ball more and more effectively?
COACH DANTONIO: Hope not. That would be a good thing if we didn't. But I think probably this week we'll probably have to be more balanced. But I think when you can run the football and be effective, you put the ball in your best players' hands, that's the thing you need to do. You need to get the ball in the hands of your best players. That's my thinking, our thinking.
But, you know, I would say we're going to be more balanced. We would have been this last week had we not had the conditions that we had. I think we were balanced. We tried to be balanced against Cal. It went a little bit the other way against Cal. So somewhere there's a happy medium there.

Q. In recent years, even before you got here, this Notre Dame rivalry has heated up in a lot of ways, whether it was issues of planting a flag on somebody's field, issues on the sidelines with a player, maybe some coaches, an incident that happened here two years ago. When you went down to South Bend, did you have to talk to the guys about those kinds of things, don't get out of control, don't fall back to what was going on in the past? Did you have to say much in that regard?
COACH DANTONIO: No, we really didn't have to say anything except the things we usually say. We want to respect who we play against, handle ourselves accordingly. It's a year ago, but I don't remember saying that. The focus was so much on us, what had happened to us, that was the driving point. So, you know, our seniors, like I said last year, they were a strong group. I think they had a lot to do with the overall attitude. I'm sure that will have to carry again.
I can stand up there and say all I want. Any coach can. Ultimately it's what you believe inside that's going to make the difference to each individual and then as a team. We need to find that little motivation.

Q. You often pick an honorary captain related to the rivalry. Have you picked one yet?
COACH DANTONIO: We picked one, but I've got the call into him. Sort of waiting for him to respond.

Q. Looking at the secondary, are you looking at possibly playing Weaver a little time at free safety? Since that was discussed, is that something you might be considering also?
COACH DANTONIO: Possibly. Possibly.

Q. Davis-Clark, is there any kind of timetable for his return?

Q. What might that be (laughter)?
COACH DANTONIO: It's impossible to say (laughter).
He's out of his sling. We're working towards it.

Q. Looking at this game this weekend, how much of a boost would it be for a win just going into conference games after this?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it would be a big step. Coming out of our non-conference games 3-1 obviously would be a big positive for us. Winning against this football team would be, as well.
But I think every game is a challenge. After every game you move to the next challenge. So you need to refocus. Regardless of what that is - win, loss - I think there's different dynamics you have to deal with in both situations.
I think beating Notre Dame in any year, regardless, is a big thing. That's where our focus will be. It's one play at a time.

Q. You get Deon Curry back this week. It's got to help you having some more depth at that wide receiver spot.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, it will. It's possible.

Q. Clausen doesn't make the best decisions under pressure, but given time he does. Do you have to balance your secondary, how much pressure, who do you blitz?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think there's a balancing act there on defense as well. You can't overdo it one extreme or the other either way. You have to show different things at times.
He's a much improved quarterback from as a freshman, as you could possibly imagine. He's going to have a great career there. You see him doing a lot of good things. His arm strength is there. His confidence is there. I think confidence is as big as anything for a quarterback.
He's throwing the ball very well. I think he's getting them in the right plays, making pretty good decisions.

Q. Talk about briefly your return game, your punt return, and your kickoff return.
COACH DANTONIO: Otis Wiley is back deep. Mark Dell has the ability to go back there. A couple other people do as well. We had big returns against Eastern. Last week we averaged about eight yards a return. I think Otis did a good job in the conditions.
I think that's got to continue to be something we try and focus on and improve on. Our goals, though, really as a punt return team are going to be no penalties, get the ball back. That's our number one goal. That means no fakes. Always play for the fake. No penalties. Make good decision, catch the ball, which we did last year. Beyond that, the return yardage is extra. But our focus will always be towards that.
As a kickoff return team, I think it was a weapon last year. We were ranked number three in the nation last year. That needs to continue to be a weapon for us. That's why you've seen Ringer back there. As some of our younger players get more experience, game experience, you may see them go back there. But I'm not comfortable putting them back there fresh. Keshawn Martin, putting him back there when he hasn't had some receptions in a game or whatever.
I also think it's important that our guys be able to break tackles back there. You saw the success that Devon Thomas had last year. We want to continue to improve or at least measure up in that area, all of our special teams. I think if you look at a drive chart where you get a ball, where you get the ball offensively or defensively, it has a definite correlation with how many touchdowns a team scores. So we want to constantly work on that aspect of our football team, which special teams control the vertical position on a field, most significantly.

Q. Talk about your offense, running of the ball the last couple weeks. The personality of the team has been kind of determined by the offensive line, running the ball. In talking with people like Jesse Miller, Cironi, Nitchman, they're to the point where they're starting to relish that role, being the tough pound-pound team. Can you talk about how much of that was premeditated among the coaching staff before the season or has the team just moved into that role where the personality has been kind of determined by the offensive line and its play?
COACH DANTONIO: We've taken that approach since we came here as a staff that we were going to change from more of a zone team to a little bit more of a power football, gap-oriented type scheme, play-action pass. We still have components of a spread offense and things like that in there, one-back things.
We've taken that mentality, because really last year when we came here, I felt like we needed to be able to control the ball, possession time a little bit more. So that mentality has basically been in existence since last year. Hopefully it continues on, not just this year but it has to continue on. I mean, that's sort of who we want to try and be. We want to be known as a tough football team. If we can't run the ball, you got to question that area at some point in time.
We sort of put the onus on our team, ask them to measure up in that area. Sometimes it's difficult. We didn't run it as well against Cal. Sometimes it's difficult to run the football. I'm sure it won't be a picnic out there this week.

Q. The visiting team has won the last six of these games. That's kind of a weird trend. Is there a rhyme or reason for that?
COACH DANTONIO: No. I think it probably has to do with maybe that football team coming back and having a little bit more to prove maybe the next time around or something. I don't know. Let's hope that trend doesn't continue. It's tough to win on the road.

Q. Can you talk about Charlie Weis' injuries? Did you see it and have you had any close calls?
COACH DANTONIO: I did see it. He got hit pretty hard. Very hard. Have I? No, not yet. I keep trying to move around (laughter).

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