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December 16, 2008

Mark Dantonio

COACH DANTONIO: First of all, very excited about the opportunity to go down and play Capital One Bowl against the University of Georgia. I think it's an outstanding opportunity for this football team to be able to come away with a possible ten-game (winning) season, and that certainly puts us in an elite category at Michigan State University. So we will go there with, first of all, that in mind.
As far as preparation, I guess we are into our seventh practice today. We have had three or four fundamental practices, three of them, and have since sort of been working towards Georgia with the bulk of what we do preparation-wise will be this week, remaining of this week. And also, finish up things down in Florida when we have an opportunity to go down there.
Outstanding football team that we are having an opportunity to play against. Great skill players, A.J. Green is a wide receiver, freshman No. 8; Massaquoi, No. 1. Both receivers have almost a thousand yards receiving apiece, 950, 910, over 50 catches each.
Quarterback, Stafford, 3,000-plus yards, 28 touchdowns, interceptions, nine; outstanding running back in Marino. So very good skill.
Defensively, very good up the middle, which is where you want to go good. I think their safeties are outstanding, linebacker, good linebacker crew, as well as an outstanding defensive tackle. Battle through injuries, much like a lot of football teams, and so they have lost some players, but certainly have been able to put together an outstanding season.
So it will be a challenge for us. Very well-coached football team. I believe 10,000-tickets plus have been sold already, so that's a positive for this game. Banquet's on Thursday, so we'll have a chance to recognize some of our players.
Joel Foreman has been named as a Freshman All-American, so that's a nice thing for him. Along with that, down in Orlando, ESPN awards with Javon Ringer, First Team All-American, Walter Camp All-American; and he was recognized down there as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award.
Right now, school is finishing up, waiting on some grades but I think we will be in good shape there. So I don't think there's going to be an issue like it was last year. All in all, we'll continue to keep pace, but practice has been going very, very well. And I'll take questions.

Q. When you watch Georgia on film, the defensive tackles, they attack the center quite a bit; talk about how critical Joel's play is going to be for a wine.
COACH DANTONIO: I think any time you want to run the football, you have to be able to control the zero, the center box, which is where the defensive tackles and guards and centers are, and then you have to control the tight end C-area. So those two areas will be crucial in terms of our success in running the football.
Joel Nitchman has had a nice season. He's got an opportunity to raise the bar a little bit this next game. So I think it will be a great opportunity for him, and a great challenge for him. But obviously very, very critical to our success.

Q. Matthew Stafford is being projected as maybe the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. What makes him so good at this level?
COACH DANTONIO: We played against a guy last year that was much the same in Ryan. So what I see in those guys are the ability to take a bad play, make it a good one, very strong arm. Has got presence in the pocket. He's got enough mobility to get out of it, get out of problems, and he's got great wide receivers that are making great plays down the field for him.
So he's got a big-time arm and he's going to throw the ball. He's not dinking the ball; where last year, for example, Ryan's leading receiver was the tailback with 78 catches, a lot of them within ten yards. Georgia is going to throw the ball down the field, a lot more independent routes where they are working a spring guy, whether it's a deep post or a deep takeoff or deep comebacks.
But they are going to put good versus good and see what you got; and he can deliver the football, and I think that's what makes him a great one.

Q. Will you do any recruiting down there while you're there when there are so many student athletes in Florida?
COACH DANTONIO: It's a dead period, so the recruiting is off limits. So, no, we won't.
But I think being in there and having the exposure in Orlando and then the national exposure playing on New Year's Day is going to help us. We have been down to Florida, the last three weeks; we have been down two weeks of them. So we have got guys on the board, and those visits will probably come in January. But they are heavily-recruited players, so we'll see how we do with those guys.
But the bulk of our recruiting will still be done here in Michigan and in the Midwest and then we will move outside for specifics. But I think the media exposure and just being down there in that environment and in that community of Florida is going to help us, certainly.

Q. Last year it seemed like the extra time maybe helped you a little bit defensively against Ryan and that offense. Obviously they have the extra prep time, as well, but do you think you can put more in and get a better executed defensive plan with this extra time?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, our guys, first of all, our coaches, did a great job in terms of figuring out what they are doing and tweaking our defense to try to stop those things as we go.
But I also think our players do a nice job in terms of preparation. You have more preparation time. There are going to be different wrinkles that come our way that they show. So we are going to have to adjust on the field.
But no, it's part of the game. I think the biggest thing that I've seen in Bowl games in my experience is from a defensive standpoint, is you have to be able to tackle in Bowl games. You have a month layoff in terms of tackling great skill, so you have to be able to get that work.
We have worked extremely hard in the practices to go live in different things where we are working that aspect, but you can get rusty there. That's one thing, and object able to play fundamentally sound at all positions: Catching the ball across the middle if you're wide receiver; throwing the ball in traffic if you're a quarterback.
But all of those things that you get a little bit better at through every week during the season, you're coming off a little bit of a layoff. So I like the way our guys responded last year in a lot of those areas, so we'll be prepared.

Q. One of the favorite post-season debates is the SEC versus the Big Ten in those Bowl games. How important is it for to you represent this conference and to kind of carry the banner for the Big Ten?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think it's important. I don't know that we are carrying the banner, but I think it's important that we represent the Big Ten in terms of making a statement, as we move forward.
But it's probably more crucial that we represent Michigan State in terms of what we do. And every game has their individual little battles and the battles are those two football teams. It's how we play against Georgia that's going to be the main thing. I think after it's all said and done, how the Big Ten does will be the secondary focus as we move forward.
But a lot of good football teams in the country, a lot of good coaches, and, you know, as I've seen over my time in this conference, it's really who you are playing against and how you match up against that football team that's going to be important.

Q. Brian talked a little bit on Saturday about wanting to do a couple things differently; namely, not throwing the interceptions. With what he went through last year in the Bowl game and having been through his senior season, do you think he's more prepared for this situation in this environment this year?
COACH DANTONIO: I feel the same way that I do all season long. I expect Brian Hoyer to have a tremendous football game. He's been very good when challenges have been brought right to him.
This is a team football game. We need to protect. We need to catch the ball. We need to get in and out of the right play. We need to have good things conceptually for us to do from a coaching standpoint.
But I feel very good about Brian in terms of what he will do in that Bowl game, and I think that he obviously will be a key to us winning the football game. So it will be a great challenge for him, but I think he's looking forward to it.

Q. Every year you have networks like ESPN or whoever, they do their confidence thing, and last year I think Boston College was picked as a team -- in a game where they were most likely to win, and this year, kind of the same thing. They have basically picked your team as the most likely to lose. What do you think when you see those types of things; is that motivation, or do you pay attention to those? Do you see those things?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I see them. It's hard not to see them. They are all over the place. I think it gives you a little bit more motivation as a person. They say that everybody loves the underdog; so they may be picking them, but they will be rooting for are us.

Q. When you watch their three losses, the key to beating Georgia is pressure on Stafford and making him make poor decisions. How much do you weigh, they are a down-the-field team, and you have to pressure and blitz; can you talk about that?
COACH DANTONIO: We have to pressure the quarterback. I think when we have been able to pressure and affect the quarterback, we have played very well defensively. When we have not, we have not played as well.
The things that are critical to us to winning, offensively and defensively, really follow around those types of issues: Can you run the ball; can you protect the quarterback; how are you playing on special teams.
I would agree with that; we need to be able to pressure him, whether it's four-man pressure or bring different people, but that's going to be part of the football team. I think that's naturally the way we play.
So our success in doing that is going to dictate probably the results of the game as it goes forward. Whether you pressure a quarterback with coverage or whether you pressure them with different blitzes or that type of thing, I think that you have to be a little bit balanced in that area. I mean, especially against a good football team and a good quarterback.
And the thing about New Year's Day is you're going to play a good football team. And I would like to think that we are a good football team in having the ability to be there, as well.
But they certainly have players that can make plays, and that's what you expect when you line up on New Year's Day.

Q. Knowing you have a lot of time to prepare for this game and you are getting some guys some reps in practice that maybe didn't get a whole lot of time in the regular season, how much do you believe in the element of surprise, doing some things a little bit differently in a game like this, knowing that you have some time, and time to get a lot of things done?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, you know, the thing about Bowl games are, you do have time, but you also have to remember that you need to continue to recruit, so that takes up a lot of your time. You need to continue to do other things. There's a lot of management-type things that you have to do in term of getting ready to go to a Bowl game and taking your entire corporation, I guess you would say, with you, so there's a lot of preparation there.
So there are certain things that you can do and certain things that you cannot do. I think that you also need to understand that you have to -- you end up staying basically the same for the most part, and you tweak little things that can make a difference.
So I guess that's -- you look for wrinkles and you are not looking to overhaul everything, but you look for wrinkles that you can change things and have an effect on the football game. But you want to do things from a fundamental standpoint very, very well so that things that you know already are the things that you're able to do well. So you continue to try to improve those aspects and then put wrinkles in.

Q. Kind of a similar question but not as strategic. You're in such a routine from Labor Day until the Bowl game watching film on Sundays, Wednesday, and then you taper it on Friday. Now that you're out of all that, how do you keep the edge as coaches and players, and can you, possibly, for a month?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, that's the thing. That's the thing that you feel as a coach a little bit. You're tugged over here; I was down in Detroit yesterday doing recruiting business, it's a couple in the evening. So your routine is a little different. And I'm watching film last night at home until 11:00, 11:15, just trying to catch up, because you feel like you're always in a catch-up mode, at least as the head coach.
We have kept our coordinators off the road last week to make sure that they knew exactly what's going on. Our assistant coaches went on the road, so they are sort of scrambling around a little bit catching up. But this week we have all been in, and I think by Friday, we'll be feeling like a normal Friday, which is fully prepared. And we will also have five or six days to spend time around Christmas thinking about this, and then also down at the Bowl game.
So you do catch up, but you do feel a little bit like you're not on the same routine. So you have to find time. And I think the key to that is just being organized and continuing to just re-evaluate and organize yourself every day to make sure that you're not leaving any aspect out of this football team.
The thing that we have to remember is that this is a program that's building, and so we can't take a day and not recruit. We have to continue to recruit and do the things that are necessary to build this program.

Q. Did you learn anything from last year in that regard?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, it was a different timing and we were not playing on New Year's Day, we were playing on the 28th and we were down there on Christmas.
I found out that our players travel well and that we represent well while we were down there, and we came to play. Those are good things, and I thought that we did a nice job in terms of preparation up here, last year, as well.
So those are the things I think you learn a little bit about yourself and are you mature enough to handle a Bowl game; in terms of preparation, last year we showed we were. Whether we will continue to do that will be based on our seniors and how they respond and lead off the field, because there are a lot of things going on off the field in a Bowl game.

Q. How does their speed compare to anybody else you played this year, and how do you neutralize that? Does the way you played the Citrus Bowl back in 2000 help at all?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think Florida in some ways was a similar team back then. They had great speed.
Perception is that you come from up here and you don't have as much speed. I don't think that's necessarily the case, but we're going to find out in a little bit. In terms of how they compare to some of these other football teams that we have played throughout the season, Cal had good speed, I felt, coming into that football game. I looked down and Notre Dame has a No. 1 recruiting class every year, so obviously they have good speed.
I look at Michigan and I look at Ohio State, Penn State, they are always nationally recruiting and they recruit great football players and two of those games, we didn't play as well.
So you know, we are going to play it against the players who line up, and I can't tell you that, I don't look at track times, but it's how you play the game of football. It will be an interesting matchup, as they always are, when you go up against teams from a different conference. It's just how you match up and how you play fundamentally. But knowing what to do is important as anything for us.

Q. (No microphone).
COACH DANTONIO: I think you go into every football game that you play and try and out-physical that football team.
I think Georgia is a lot like us in the respect that they are a two-back football team, as well. Certainly when they get into passing situation, they will move to the different formations and personnel groupings, much like we do.
But they want to be able to run the football, as well, and they predicate things based on their toughness, and that comes from their head coach being a former offensive line coach and establishing a great deal of attention and toughness this their program, which is the way I think it should be.

Q. When you look at the different facets of special teams, how good is Georgia in the special teams area?
COACH DANTONIO: Good. They have good skill people running down. Pretty good returners. They do a nice job on punt returns. Punter does a nice job. I think they have had one punt blocked, so good protection in that area. Field goal kicker is solid.
So, you know, they are a good football team. As I said, when you look at them and when you look at us, they have lost two Top-10 teams in Florida and Alabama. We have lost two Top-10 teams in Penn State and Ohio State. And then you go back and you look at the other losses they have had against a good Georgia Tech team, who is also 9-3, and then you look at our other losses, a Cal team, which I believe Cal is 8-4.
So there are some comparisons there in terms of how we play. Georgia has gone through a lot of injuries, and so they probably had to deal with some depth issues. We had to deal with that, as well. They are a No. 1 team in the country, or No. 2, preseason, and you know, I don't know where we came from, 52nd.
So somewhere in there lies the truth, I guess. We are going to find out on January 1, but it will be an exciting match up.

Q. Coach Richt uses his offensive coordinator to look at the defensive scheme and he uses the defensive coordinator to look at the offense, and they both look at the special teams. Is that something that you employ?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, it's something that I think is something that we are able to grow to and do, and I want to try and do those things. I try and go over and I try to be that person that looks at both sides and say, this is what so and so does or this is what these people do. But I do think that you need to be able to cross-reference that much.
The longer you are together and the more you are with the program, I think you can start to do that and I think that's something that can happen here and I think it's a great idea, and other people do that, as well.
That's something that we may be able to do here, but I think in the initial stages of this program, the bottom line was to try and formulate who we are and get things up and running first.

Q. With all of the sentiment for a playoff, including from the president elect, beyond your feelings on that, would a playoff make certain Bowl games maybe like this one less important and the perception would be they are all fighting for crumbs if they are not one of the eight teams?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I don't know about that. I think the Bowl experience for everybody is such a huge thing. I think that America gets caught up in who is the best, and they leave out 116 other teams. I guess that's natural.
But there's some awful good football teams out there that are playing for a lot of things, and it would be a shame to just lose that atmosphere that's created by those football teams.
These two teams that are playing in this will have an opportunity -- one of them is going to win ten football games and I think that's a pretty good football season and one that should be recognized and will be recognized by all their fans. We are not playing for the National Championship, but then again, you know, when you lose the National Championship game, you just sort of fade away. Nobody even thinks that you had a good year.
I think that's probably America these days. But it would be -- I think we would miss something if we didn't have the Bowl experience for our players and for our fans. Somewhere I think there's a formula for success there and I'm sure we'll find that at some point.
There are a lot of good football teams that are coming on at the end of the season. The one good thing about the 1-AA playoff is you have teams that won three or four times that won the National Championship because they peaked and they are healthy and those type of things. So you still are not going to solve the whole; you are just solving who is playing best the end. You know, I don't know. Is that vague enough?

Q. It may not be the National Championship, but can you just elaborate and talk about, you said the ten wins were a goal of yours; just the importance of what it can do to catapult a program when you get the ten wins and playing on New Year's Day, the importance for you and the kids and the university?
COACH DANTONIO: For this program and for this university, gives us I think national exposure playing on New Year's Day, first of all. It also sends a message to recruits and to people who are maybe only eighth or ninth grade right now, or sophomores or juniors, for that matter, that we are taking steps in the right direction.
In the process, I think that your natural progression of things is to go to a Bowl game when you first come in as a new program. You don't go to a Bowl game; you go to a little bit better one, continue to try and build. You may take a step back at some point there, but you always have at least been to this particular Bowl game and try and aspire to continue up the ladder to get to these BCS games so you can be one of the eight, as Fred talked about.
But I think it's exciting not just for our football team but for our university. It creates an image for our football team that we are getting better. I'm not going to sit there and say that we have arrived. But when you win ten football games, I can just tell you, I think that so far, my coaching career has been okay; and I would say that we have won ten games or more three out of the -- out of my whole coaching career, four times.
So that's a statement I think when you are able to do that and it points towards success and that's a positive for everybody.
Thank you.

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