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MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY MEDIA CONFERENCE
November 18, 2008
THE MODERATOR: To preview the regular-season finale of Penn State, head Coach Mark Dantonio.
COACH DANTONIO: Well, to start with, outstanding opportunity for our football program and team this weekend up at Penn State, over in Beaver Stadium. Certainly present a great challenge for us.
When you look at them, in all categories, I think throughout the Big-10 and overall throughout the season, they're ranked No. 1 or No. 2 - almost No. 1 in every one of them: rushing defense, rushing offense, scoring offense, scoring defense, all the primary areas that you would look at. So it will be a great challenge for us.
The atmosphere will be electric, I'm sure. Always is over there. It will be something that I think our players will remember for the rest of their lives.
With all that being said, the opportunity to go over and win, very, very confident about being able to go over and play. You look out here last year on this football field, we were able to beat Penn State in our last game last year. I thought that in 2006, you know, Brian Hoyer, ironically his first start as a quarterback, played very well in that football game. It was a close game. So we'll have our opportunities.
I think inevitably, when you look at statistics, best gauged over a period of 11 games played against various opponents. All we have to do is worry about the statistics at the end of this football game versus Penn State, how that relates to our football team and their football team.
Obviously fundamentals will be key in the game. You know, plays such as turnovers and those type of things will always play a big, big role in that.
We're looking forward to it. It's one game. It's an opportunity to be at least, at the very least, co-Big-10 champions. So the focus is there. We'll live in the present.
I'll take questions.
Q. I know you kind of embraced the bye week. At first you didn't like it. But your football team had momentum. Do you worry about losing the edge? How do you counteract that if it's even a factor?
COACH DANTONIO: I think, first of all, when you come off a bye week, you look at things. Throughout the course of my football career, you look at the last game that you played. Did we sit there with a loss at the end of the bye week? The answer to that is no. What do we have to play for at the end of the bye week? Their answer to that is: a lot. There are a lot of things we have to play for, as we just said.
If anything, it's provided a little bit of an adrenaline boost. You sort of sit, wait, anticipate. You watch the games this weekend. You find out a little bit more what's going on. The focus is not on you over the weekend; now the focus is on us a little bit more maybe. So all those things I think are exciting for our football program. I don't think we've lost anything.
Now how we play on the weekend, we haven't played a game. We needed to heal up a little bit. We were certainly nicked up. So I think that was very beneficial to us as well. And then I also think we have a little bit more focus, I guess, a couple more days of opportunity to focus on Penn State this past week than to get ready for them, boom, on Sunday and Monday.
So I think all those things are positives. Certainly going over there is a negative. Playing away is tough. Playing against a great football team, some of the things they bring to the table will be tough for us to overcome. But I like where we're at, as I said earlier. It's an exciting challenge for us.
Q. With all the teams you faced this year, when you look at Penn State on offense, defense and special teams, would you say this is the most balanced team you faced this year?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, certainly I think that when you look at them, they're a 10-1 football team. I thought Ohio State obviously brought a lot to the table. They're a very good football team as well. We played some very good teams.
But when you look at them in terms of statistically, in every single category, they're pretty much at the top. Clark has thrown very few interceptions. One of the least penalized teams in the country. As I said earlier, all these different categories. Third down, 50% on third down, completing 50% of all third-down opportunities. Defense they're at the top on opposing third downs. So all the different aspects of the football game are there for somebody to say, Well, on a piece of paper, this is what it looks like. But you don't play the game on a piece of paper. So we're going to go over and we'll be ready. Our players will be confident.
Q. This program hasn't won at Penn State since 1965. How do you use the past to get this team ready?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think what we look at in terms of the past is we look at the opportunities we've had over there where we've played well and the games have come down to the last player. I remember going over there, I think as I remember, in my past in '96. We played very well. Came down to the end of the game. Certainly in 2006 that happened. '98 it didn't happen. 2000, it didn't happen. I wasn't here in 2002. They present a great environment to play college football. It's why you come to Michigan State.
At this point, in my time here, opportunities to play in this game for a Big-10 championship the last game of the season, you know, those are exciting opportunities for our players. I think those are things that they'll remember, truly for the rest of their lives. I think that's exciting for everybody.
We'll play on the past, what we've been able to do. Our recent past indicates we've won the last game. That's good enough to start with.
Q. How much healthier are you after this week off? Do you expect everybody to be back?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, we're much healthier. Without going into great depth about it, we're much healthier. You know, the nagging things, an ankle injury, something that's nagged a player for the last three or four weeks, we've been able to get over those things.
We're a much healthier football team, and we'll take that into the game with us.
Q. How important are fundamentals going to be in this game, tackling, catching the ball, not turning it over? Will you use the Ohio State game as kind of a lesson that way?
COACH DANTONIO: We've got to move past that. So, no, we won't use that, other than to recognize the fact that fundamentally, the team that plays the best fundamentally will win the football game. There's no doubt in my mind about that.
The focus will be there for us. The intent, the energy, that will all be there for us. But, you know, as you play through the game, things happen in a game that take that away from you sometimes. So what we have to guard against is to continue to play every play to the best of our abilities with great effort, know what they're doing, know what we're doing, don't get the two confused. You know, we have to play with a lot of energy.
Me standing up here and saying that, doing that with 100,000 people on top of you when they just completed a 15-yard pass, sacked the quarterback, you have to get up and play the next play. If we can do that on a consistent basis, we can live with what happens.
Q. Since you don't go to Penn State every year, not every football coach has a luxury of having a quarterback that understands that. You mentioned Brian's start there. What comfort level does that give you, knowing your quarterback already understands that?
COACH DANTONIO: I have a huge comfort level just in the back that Brian Hoyer is our quarterback. He's been in tough situations. We've played in different environments. We played down at Ohio State last year. We played at Michigan this year. We played at Wisconsin last year. We played in those environments.
His first start, which probably was as anxious as he was as a college football player, was at Penn State. That's a statement in itself in terms of he's experienced a high level of anxiety in that stadium. I think that's something that will benefit us greatly, is a huge advantage for us, to have our quarterback, one of your leaders, to play in that environment and be successful in terms of how he played.
Q. When George and Joe set this game up as a season-ending rivalry type thing, it was talked about that it would someday rival Michigan and Ohio State. Coming finally to this point, what importance do you put on that and what kind of special meaning is it, that this could be an enduring game someday?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, in talking with Dan Enos, one of our coaches who played here at Michigan State, you know the background, I think he mentioned to me that at one point in time Coach Perles referenced this football game, that someday, some time this game will be played for the Big-10 champion.
To do that in 2008 at this point in time is exciting. I think it's exciting for all Spartans. It puts a little bit more emphasis and credibility on the rivalry. It was a great rivalry when I came here before. I remember in '95 when I came here, I was watching the highlight film at the end of the '95 season, one of the focuses was on the '95 game. It was a close game. I remember Derrick Mason running a kickoff back, I think, as I remember. But, you know, I got a sense of the importance of that game at that point in time. Then throughout my time here, those six years, then again last year, the importance and significance of being able to play in this football game at the end of the season, and how important it is to win the football game because a lot of times, it ends your regular season. Whether you go to a Bowl game or you don't go to a Bowl game, it's the last thing for your football season for at least four or five weeks. It's something you have to live with and deal with for a certain point of time.
We will be motivated.
Q. I know the answer is you can only control what you can control, but the Rose Bowl is such a big part of your overall focus here. Will you be singing the Michigan fight song or how will that work?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I'll focus on what we can control. There's nothing that we can do to control any other aspects of getting to the Rose Bowl. But our time will come for that. So whether it's this year, whether it's another year, our time will come for that.
The main focus is on winning this football game and being a 10-2 football team. If we're 10-2, good things are going to happen.
Q. You mentioned with the Big-10 title at stake, it could be argued this is the biggest game for Michigan State in 15 or 20 years, how do you temper that euphoria and enthusiasm that's going to build all week with getting your team ready?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I'm not going to temper it at all. To me I've always tried to approach football as a very exciting game, it's an emotional football game, just the game itself. The more emotion you bring, the better it is. These are things to me that, hey, when you're seven or 10 years old, you're out on the street, you're playing the game for all the marbles. That's fun for kids. That should be fun for our players.
We've worked extremely hard to get to this point. So I want our players to enjoy this aspect of it. We've got to go over and play well and play in the game, but I want them to be excited about that opportunity. I'm not going to squash their enthusiasm for it. I'm just going to embrace it, which is what we have to do with everything we deal with here. Whether we have to play at Cal away the first game of the season or however things play out, we need to embrace what happens to us, learn from it, try and move the program forward.
Q. Following up on the previous questions, does that mean you don't have to worry about your kids scoreboard watching? Will you address the situation before since it has nothing to do with you in regard to that game finishing up?
COACH DANTONIO: No, we'll be locked in by then. We'll be at pregame meal by then, three hours beforehand when that game starts. Ike Reese is our honorary captain. Ike played here in '97 and '96 when I was here, '93 and '94. Since then he played in the NFL 11 years with the Eagles. He's coming over. I think that will be exciting for our football team to hear from him, for him just to be around us.
He was a two-time captain. If there's one person I remember from my past year, you take about eight to 10 guys in that six-year period of time, Ike Reese is going to be one of the guys who impacts people. That will be exciting for us.
To be honest with you, my focus is going to be on what can we do at the very last minute to help us win a football game. All those things are secondary. Those will be nice things to look back on after the fact, whether they won or they didn't win or whatever the case. But we can't control any of that. We need to focus on the task at hand.
Q. Could you talk about the runningback battle. Ringer, of course, then Evan Royster has been having a great year. Both defenses will be keying on stopping them.
COACH DANTONIO: Evan Royster is an outstanding runningback. He's from Westfield High School down in Centerville, Virginia. That's where my brother's from. My brother's boys went to school with him, et cetera. I know he's an outstanding runningback because the recruitment of him early on, at least I knew about him. He's done an outstanding job at Penn State. I think Javon Ringer also.
The bottom will be not who runs the ball, but which team runs the ball most effectively. I think that's one thing that's key, which team will be able to run the ball significantly and most effectively in the football game. Whether it's by committee or one person or who knows how, what, you know, that will be key to a football game. It always is. It seems to be. I think with these two football teams, they both believe in running the football. They're not going to throw it 60 times, nor are we.
Q. How big of a concern for you is Aaron Maybin? How good of a player is he?
COACH DANTONIO: Very good player. Again, another guy. Another superlative. Penn State leads the conference in sacks. Outstanding player. Speed rush guy. We're going to have to do certain things I'm sure to stay away from him, negate some of what he does.
But we played against some very good football players already this year, and he's just another one of them. But he'll try and impact the football game.
Q. This is typically the time in terms of the fans where a lot of times the focus shifts to basketball, some years the football coaching search, speculation maybe a coach is going to get fired. From what you can tell, given a season like this, how do you think the football culture has changed now that you're kind of at the height of this special season?
COACH DANTONIO: You guys would probably be able to answer that better than I would because I don't really read and feel as much as you do outside in the public. I'm concentrated with what's going on here.
But I would think that it's a positive, it's exciting. I think I've said "exciting" probably about 15 times here (laughter). But I think it's a good thing for the state of Michigan. That's what I'm concerned about, the state of Michigan.
Q. You have an athletic director, when he was introduced, talked about the roses on our cleats, put that at the forefront of this football program no matter where he's gone. Since you have that opportunity right now, how smart does he look? When he went on a speaking engagement, he talked about the roses for this football team.
COACH DANTONIO: I already knew he was very intelligent, so I didn't have to figure that one out.
When he did say that to me, it meant football was a priority here. It meant that the resources were going to be here for us to get the job done. Those are the things that that meant to me. And I'm sure as he talked, just like I talked long-term about a plan, you know, there's no time period where that plan has to happen. The fact that we were going to push together to make it happen is the important thing.
I would say the same thing that is happening in all sports here at Michigan State, you know, I guess the quest for a championship in any of the sports. I look at our men's soccer team, the things they were able to do this year. Coach Baum's last year, winning a conference champion and then going and winning the conference tournament points towards the great success that that program has had as well. Our basketball team, our hockey team, the recent successes that all of our teams have had give an indication that this entire athletic department is on solid ground.
Q. You've talked about emotion, the excitement that surrounds this with the players. Talk about from your standpoint, from you as a coach, from the coaching staff, how do you feel about this opportunity to be where you're at after just two years?
COACH DANTONIO: There's that word again, "exciting." We're excited. You go out, you have an opportunity. There's so many years where you go in, as somebody said, the last game, Okay, we're playing last year to try to get to the Champs Bowl. That's a great experience. We're trying to get 7-5 last year. This year we're trying to go 10-2, do something more significant.
Early on I think that we talked about as a team, our goal was to get to a New Year's Day Bowl game. That was our goal. We wanted to try to do things in steps. I think any time you recognize some goals that you have for yourself, for your program, I think that's a positive, that's exciting. That's whether you're in fourth great trying to pass math or whether you're in 10th grade trying to pass chemistry. Those are things that you try and accomplish. We're to a point where we're maybe accomplishing some goals we set out for ourselves.
It's a happy time around here. But we also understand the job is not done. We also understand, as I've said many times, that I think the key to evaluating a football program, or any program, is at the end, not in the beginning, not in the middle. I think I said to our football team at one point, you know, you've heard it all before, September's for pretenders, November's for contenders. We're contending right now.