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MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY MEDIA CONFERENCE
September 15, 2009
THE MODERATOR: For a preview of Notre Dame, head Coach Mark Dantonio.
COACH DANTONIO: First off, really just to sort of finalize last week, I think it's important that we move forward. Certainly we need to focus on the solution here, what the problem was, critique the problems that we had, plan forward, practice towards the things we need to get accomplished, and really emotionally sort of regroup ourselves and move forward. I think our players are doing that. I feel good about our coaches. I feel very good about our players. Bottom line is we need to take strength from everyone and fortitude and push it forward. That's what we'll do.
We'll focus on the future. Right now the focus is Notre Dame. Big rivalry for us. This will be the seventh time I've played against them personally. I guess three times the head coach, four times as an assistant. My fifth time down there to South Bend to play. So outstanding rivalry really going back all the way to '66, the 10-10 tie.
So many people in this program have been a part of this tradition throughout our time here, whether it's guys that I've met in the '60s or the '80s or the '90s, they're talking about Notre Dame. They talk to you about the past games and what it's all meant to them. So very important.
Offensively I think Notre Dame first of all coming off a tough loss themselves. Offensively they put up some great numbers. They have 10 starters back. They have Michael Floyd, who is the leading receiver in the nation in terms of yards per catch. Armando Allen had a great game, career high. Clausen has thrown in the last three games over a thousand yards, no interceptions. They're one of the only teams, I think they are the only team, maybe there's one other team or so, but they have no sacks right now in the season. So outstanding offensive team.
Obviously Coach Weis, offensive coach. They will be very fundamentally sound. They're going to throw it up top. I mean, that's the nature of what they've done. They go deep a lot, seems like. But they've established the running game as well.
Defensively really they have six guys back with starting experience. Jon Tenuta is the defensive coordinator. He was at Ohio State before I had come there previously. Known as a pressure coach. He's going to pressure. He's going to play an under front predominantly. They're going to mix things up, be very well-coached. Can tackle well, play extremely hard.
Both specialists. They have a rookie kicker. Their punter is back for their second year. Specialty-wise they've excelled in blocking kicks these last couple seasons, especially last year I believe they had five blocked kicks so that will be a challenge for us as well.
But our players will be excited. The nature of I think young people are to be resilient. This is an exciting opportunity to go down to Notre Dame and we will be emotionally ready. I'll just take some questions.
Q. Last week's practices were very physical and your team struggled with tackling. When you're going up against a team like Notre Dame that gets the yards after the catch, is there not a whole lot you can do differently than what you did last week?
COACH DANTONIO: I think the one thing that if you look at the game film of last week's game, what we start to do is start to watch a little bit instead of playing like we're used to playing. I think some of that is rhythm. We get out of rhythm a little bit. You're trying to do this, trying to do that, spreading the offense, working this and that, you get out of rhythm a little bit. A three-yard catch becomes an eight-yard gain and that type of thing.
We have to get back to do what we do best, play downhill, play fundamentally sound, and that's what we'll do. We'll go back to things that have been good for us and work it. Our players will play confidently. I have no doubt in that.
Q. You said Sunday night you felt better after spending time with your players. Would you elaborate on that? Is that about kids' resiliency more than 50-year-old men? Whenever you lose a game of any kind, the fans, the Internet want to jump off the bridge, fire the coach, change the whole philosophy. Is this where your even keel comes in? How do you keep that from filtering into your team? Maybe the second part first if you would.
COACH DANTONIO: Try not to come to too many press conferences, I guess (laughter).
I guess what you have to do, first of all, when you have a problem, as I said earlier, when something tough has happened in your family, you want to go and be with your family. Our football family is our family in this case. As I said to our football team, I think I mentioned it Sunday night, if I sat down and said, Hey, you got to play cover four, wizard red magic, those type of things, it means nothing to anybody here. It means something to our players. When you run a cut route, have a moving tray, means nothing to anybody sitting here or any fans, but it means something to our players.
What we have to do is we have to go back, look at the people who are truly invested in this program. The people who are truly invested in this program are the players who play. We have to regather ourselves and find strength in each other. When you were around our players on Sunday, I think you feel good. This is a problem. This is nothing like the problem that one of our players encountered on Friday afternoon when his grandmother passed. Nothing like that. That's a problem.
So those type of things, what we have to do is understand this is a game. I know it influences a lot of people, but at the same time you move forward and you play the next game. That's what we'll do.
Monday our players weren't around as much. So I'm looking forward to today, for Tuesday, to get back with our players because it helps everybody. When the coaches and the players, we're practicing, you move forward. You're able to move forward when you start getting back to normalcy. That's what we'll do.
That's how I see it. Been knocked down before. Football teaches you to get up. It's that old adage. That's why you play competitive games. Playing a deep ball in the deep third of the field, you guys have been out there and watched the jugs hit those balls and go up, not too many people can do some of the things we do.
What I would say is we take stock in ourselves, go back to the basics, what has made us productive, successful, offensively, defensively and special teams, and we play on emotion. That's what we'll do.
But this is not an easy game. This is not a game for everybody. But this is what we choose to play and coach and do for a profession. We've been successful at it and we'll continue to be successful.
Q. I think you hinted one time last year that you grew up a Notre Dame fan. If that was the case, what attracted you to the program at an early age and what does it mean to be part of that rivalry with so much history?
COACH DANTONIO: When I grew up, I think there were three TV stations. Notre Dame was on every Sunday morning. I watched a little football. That's what was on. I was Roman Catholic. That's what we did. That's really the extent of it. Once we got cable, I changed (smiling).
Q. To what?
COACH DANTONIO: I guess to other teams.
Q. Speaking of moving forward, Colin Neely is a guy who played pretty well before the penalty. Do you anticipate that being able to help him move forward this game?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, Colin is having a tough time right now, much like all of us. All I've asked our team to do and what I do is I ask what could I have done differently. As the head coach here, I can control a lot of things. There are things that happened prior to that snap where we could have gotten out of this game and won the football game.
So nobody's to blame for this, no one specific person. It's on all of us. I'll take responsibility. I'm the head coach. But you have to ask yourself what you can do. They had to get 23 yards before they could even kick that field goal. We had a chance to get the on-side kick. There's so many things, so many things that you go back to where this game is very winnable.
With that being said, give credit to the people who won the game, too. I don't want to take anything away from anyone else. I'm just saying that we had opportunities to win the football game. We didn't win. It is what it is. We move on. I don't know any other way to do that, except riding in on Sunday morning was tough. I see all people cleaning up after all the people being here, have a great crowd here. I know what goes into playing football here. I know what goes into making this a game-day experience, all the people who take their time and come here and spend their money here and be a part of this family.
But when you're a part of a family, you take the good with the bad and you're still part of the family. If you're hangers-on, you're just riding along for the ride. So I know who's with us. We'll be fine.
Q. I know you prefer to have a lot of fourth- and fifth-year players. You have a lot of young players. How comfortable do you feel in their maturation process to this point? Is it a good place?
COACH DANTONIO: Certainly we need to get better at all phases. I think every football team right now is trying to get better. We have a lot of young players. We have some redshirt freshmen playing. We have some sophomores playing. But we have players with experience playing as well. So those players playing for the first time, they're in a new situation. It's a new experience for them. They're probably thinking a little bit.
But we've got 31 players who have been down to Notre Dame, who were there in '07. So we have a nucleus of guys on this football team who have played in that game down there. We also have a nucleus of guys who have played up here. And we've played well. We played excited. We'll get it back. This just gives us more resolve.
If anything, I think when you're tested, you know, you come back with more resolve. That's what most people do. They have a chance and they can't wait to play and they're excited about playing and they make sure they cross the Ts and dot the Is on the next one. And that's what we'll do.
Q. You hear people say a team just has another team's number. Any idea why Michigan State has been successful at Notre Dame, done things no other school has done?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I would say it comes down to specifics in terms of blocking and tackling. I'm sure there's an emotional edge to both teams when you play in this game. So I can't say it's emotional totally.
Things have happened. I think we played pretty fundamentally sound. Whenever I've gone down there in the past I guess this is the fourth time, but when we've gone down in '97, '99 and 2007, we played very fundamentally sound. We've not turned the ball over. We've done things that allow us to win.
Q. On the depth chart you have Robinson starting at free safety. He had a strong spring. Might have stepped back a little. What has Robinson done to impress you and move him up?
COACH DANTONIO: Trenton, first of all, had an outstanding spring. Remember, Danny Fortener I thought had a good 2008 season. I think he was very, very solid. Trenton had an outstanding spring. He makes a lot of plays. Came into camp, a little short on experience. Went with the other guy because of the experience. I don't think Danny Fortener has played bad, it's Trenton has played very well and has been very active. I think he had seven tackless, three assists on Saturday. He's an active football player. Combines speed with that activity.
Consequently he's sort of risen up the depth chart. Doesn't mean he's going to remain there. Doesn't mean that we will not play the other guy. But I just think that he deserves that opportunity to start in this situation. And it will be a great experience for him.
Danny Fortener has played well, especially in last year's game.
Q. Obviously you haven't been a part of the six straight road wins at Notre Dame, but what kind of pride do you take in that streak and wanting that to continue?
COACH DANTONIO: I'm just happy to win. Whenever I'm on the winning side, that's the only thing that really matters. I don't really look at it as a streak. I think maybe alums or those types of things. But the players that are at Notre Dame, the players that are here, you can only really evaluate to me what has happened while they have played.
That streak goes back a number of years. So it's really out of those people's hands. It's on the people that have played in the game. So it comes down to guys blocking, tackling, catching the football, playing the ball in the deep part of the field, mental errors, emotion, adversity, those type of things. And that's really got to be carried by the people that are currently here.
I think the people that have been down there in the past share in 2007's win, but beyond that I would say it's a clean slate.
Q. What kind of challenge does their receiving corps pose for you based on this past weekend?
COACH DANTONIO: I think first of all they have outstanding receivers. Kamara is another guy, No. 18, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Rudolph is an excellent tight end, spread the ball around. Clausen is in his third year now. He's an experienced quarterback. He knows where to go with the ball. He gets rid of the ball. They're going to throw it deep, throw it up.
Yeah, it presents problems. It presents a lot of different things for us, challenges I would say more than problems, but extreme challenges because any time the ball goes up in the air you've got to play it. You've got to get up there and get it, climb up a ladder and grab it. That's what we'll do. We'll focus on that.
But just like everybody who is experienced, when the ball goes up in the air, you can look at it every Saturday, when the ball goes up in the air deep, somebody's going to come up with it usually.
Q. You go to Notre Dame, to Wisconsin, you come back here for Michigan. Can you talk about the importance of these next three weeks in terms of shaping the direction of your season.
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think as you go through your season, if you look at Iowa last year, they struggled early in the season, all of a sudden came on strong. We'll play 'em one game at a time. We're not going to look too far in advance. I don't think that's fair to our players. We need to make sure we're ready for the next game.
We go away twice. We played well at Notre Dame in the past. We played well at Wisconsin in the past. We played well here. We had a chance to win every one of those games, whether it's '07 or '08. I guess we've won 'em and we've lost 'em.
This football program will not stand on three games, it will stand on much longer than that. But we'll focus on one game at a time, and if we can really focus on one play at a time we will be fine.
Q. The Notre Dame offense, that was one of your best defensive efforts against them here. Do you take anything from that game? Is it fair to say it's different playing an offense more like yours?
COACH DANTONIO: They're somewhat like ours, but they don't run some of the same things. So it's tough to really -- they don't run a power game. It's a little bit different schematically inside.
But I would say we did play well here last year defensively. But, again, you go back, it's a new game. They'll critique what they did. They'll make different decisions. They'll have different things, different strategies, just like we had. So it's really a clean slate in terms of how we play them and how they play us. They're all sides of it.
Our quarterbacks will go down there. This is the first opportunity for our quarterbacks to go down, so that will be exciting for them. It will be an exciting atmosphere for us. Will be a lot of Spartans down there, too.
Q. In some ways, in a twisted way, does a head coach like --
COACH DANTONIO: Surprised you say it like that (laughter).
Q. It's perfect for me. That a coach would like a situation like this, coming off a bad loss like this, but you get your players' attention, gives you the opportunity to see how tough they are?
COACH DANTONIO: What you try to do in winter workouts, spring practice, summer practice, at some point in time you're constantly trying to put your players in adverse situations to see how they're going to respond in an adverse situation. Obviously, last Saturday we had some adverse situations out there and we needed to respond.
On the two-point play, we responded. Didn't get the on-side kick, had to come back in. A lot of adversity. Shellshocked. Played soft. Didn't respond, okay? But you're constantly trying to put your players in those situations.
I think those are life lessons for people. For coaches, for players, for administrators, for fans. Those are all life lessons. So now you look at a situation like this, we lost the football game. That's another life lesson. How we respond to that will be critical and will shape us further.
If we go down there and play well, that's a positive. If we go down and we don't play well, then we got more adversity and we have to face more challenges. But that's the dynamics of reality and the human existence, I guess.
I like seeing how our players are going to do backed up to a wall, sure. I don't like to be backed up against a wall personally. But I'll find out. And we've been there before. So, you know, we'll be there again, I can assure you. We'll be there again. It's the nature of it. But it makes us stronger in the end.
In the end it will make us stronger, all of us, remember back when this happened or that happened. Even my daughter remembers back when she was a fifth grader and I was a first-time head coach and she said, Remember when. And she's in the fifth grade then.
Everybody remembers. It pulls people together. I think that's natural. I think that's a natural. For the most part I think people have a very strong spirit in terms of how they face adversity - most people - and they'll respond.
Q. You mentioned how Clausen has played well in the first couple games. He hasn't had pressure on him. That's where he seems to struggle. How important is it for your defense to get in his face this week?
COACH DANTONIO: It's important for our defense to get back on track. If you look at this past week, we didn't pressure 'em enough. We couldn't get there, whatever the case was. But we didn't hit the quarterback enough. If you're going to affect the quarterback, you got to hit him more. You got to do more in coverage. Whatever it is, you have to get hits on the quarterback.
So that will be important. I'm sure we'll see screens. I'm sure we'll see all the things that they do. But that's why we're playing this game so we're going to find out a little bit about ourselves. But I think you're correct.
Q. Quarterbacks are status quo?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I think so. We didn't lose that football game because of our quarterback play.
Q. Regardless of who or how well they play, you got to be able to run the ball better. Can that be traced to a younger offensive line or do your younger runningbacks need to learn how to run harder?
COACH DANTONIO: I think traced to some of that is experience, runningback experience. I know that Larry Caper cut back one time where he could have stayed with it outside. But, you know, that's experience. I think it's experience getting the right guys up there. You got to stay on your blocks and everything. We only had 56 plays on offense. We ran the ball for 107 yards. We ran the ball 30 times.
Again, we scored 27 points. We didn't turn the ball over. It was more a fact that we didn't get the ball enough. At the end they took the clock and didn't leave anything left.
I would say that's got to come. But that's part of youth, too. Part of that is youth. We'll continue to get better.
Q. Also with the runningbacks, they haven't really been involved in the passing game much to this point. Is that something you anticipate doing more down the road as they get more game experience?
COACH DANTONIO: That's what we'll see. I don't want to talk too much strategically there. Depends on the pressures they see, block protections, different things of that nature. But we will get them involved at times.
Q. You tend to talk about senior leadership all the time. What have you seen from your seniors in terms of helping the team kind of get over this loss with the younger players, get refocused? Is it what you're looking for?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, what I've seen from our seniors, like I say, we were off yesterday, so we really didn't see 'em, but has been all positive, has been again resolve on their part. They have been there. They have had some tough losses. They know how to respond to those. And I think that they've dealt in a very positive way. I've been proud of our seniors.
But our football team collectively, when you go through things like this, and I can only identify with a family or something like that, when people go through these things, the people that are truly the leaders, the true leaders, begin to take control in adverse situations. And I think that's probably the same thing that will happen to our football team.
The guys who are the true leaders, they'll respond and they'll start to take control of this football team.
Q. Are you starting to see that?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, like I said, I haven't seen them on Monday. But I feel good about where our players are, where our emotional state is. I feel good about their work ethic. I think when I talk to Coach Manning, how they worked out in the weight room, he said excellent, very focused, very about business, very going about doing everything they were asked to do. On a scale of 1 to 10, I guess emotionally and fortitude, you know, excellent, 10, 9.5.
Q. A couple of good passing attacks. Notre Dame has allowed more than five yards a carry. Not allowing sacks. Over 200 yards a game rushing allowance. Is this a game where a team who can run the football is going to win it?
COACH DANTONIO: I think you have to have balance. I think if it goes all one direction, you have a hard time winning the football game usually. Can't say that entirely, obviously. But I think we have to be balanced. That's our makeup.
If we can be balanced, run the ball for 100, 150 yards, that's balance. If you're running the ball for 200 yards, that's excellent in the running game. Many people can't run it for 100. We need to make those situations second-and-four, those types of things.
Q. You talked about your team, you want to see how they respond, how tough they are with their backs against the wall. Notre Dame is in a similar situation to you. How will you measure that, whether you win or lose? Both teams are in a close situation.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, I can't control anything on the other end of the spectrum there, on the other side. That's for other people to figure out on their end of things. I can only control -- we can only control our set of circumstances and where we're at.
All I can tell you is we lost a game. It was very disappointing. It was an emotional downer I think for everybody. We need to climb out of that hole and we're going to do that. We're going to go down and it's going to be exciting for us. I know we'll be excited to play. I feel very, very good about that. We'll be excited to play.
Q. What has Blair White meant to the offense so far and how is he helping the younger receivers?
COACH DANTONIO: Obviously, Blair has been very, very productive. That's been a big positive for us. He's gone up and got the catch for the most part but nobody's perfect. I think what he's proven to be is a very productive player. He's a gamer and he's tough. He's going to do everything he can to win a football game, whether it's on special teams, he had a big punt return in the game Saturday, or whether it's catching the football, or whatever it is.
But there are things that everybody just needs to ask where they're at and try and improve, and he's one of them, and he'll do that. But he's an outstanding person. Outstanding character, person, competitor.
Q. Charlie Weis, because of his offensive experience, has designated days where he spends with the offense, play calling process. Because of your defensive experience, do you spend more time with those guys this week than you normally would? If so, what do you emphasize knowing what happened Saturday?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, if you've been to practice, you know I spend most of my time with the defense, a lot of time in the secondary. Like I said, when I see that deep ball go up or that pass completed, that's on me, too. So I'm involved in that defensively. You know, that's where I spend my time.
I think as a head coach or CEO or whatever you are in terms of leadership, I mean, I think because my area of strength is in the secondary, that's where I tend to spend my most time because that's where I can do the most good for my football team. So I'll always do that. I will go over offensively. I will be in the offensive staff room. I will be on the offensive practice room. But I'm going to watch the film defensively at night and I'm going to make sure that whatever is being said that I'm in agreement with.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks a lot, coach.
COACH DANTONIO: Thanks a lot. Have a good day.
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