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September 29, 2009

Mark Dantonio

COACH DANTONIO: Good afternoon, guys. Obviously after our last game against Wisconsin, I think we talked about that a little bit on Sunday evening, but I think you have to take -- you can take a couple different approaches. You can take one of disappointment certainly, at 1 and 3 right now, not probably where we were expecting to be at this point in time. You can take a look at it and be very encouraged in the fact that we've lost some close games. And then you can also look at it and choose to succeed, and I think to do that we have to focus on the present and the task at hand, which is Michigan.
As far as where we're at as a football team right now, things have been very, very positive in practice Sunday night after a disappointing loss, coming back to practice in the evening on Sunday. Had a good practice, guys flying around, excited about the entire week.
It's a state rivalry. I think it's pretty well-documented this state is drawn in either green or blue pretty much, so there's a lot of people involved in this rivalry, and I think it's exciting for everybody whoever has played in this.
In regards to Michigan, they're playing very well right now. They've won two very close games. Quarterback has made plays in both games down the stretch to win both the Notre Dame and the Indiana game, and they should be complimented on that.
They've got big players on the offensive side of the ball. Robinson comes in, does a very nice job, as well, very exciting player. Carlos Brown has been very productive. Brandon Minor looks like he's got his game going and they've got some outstanding skill receivers in Mathews and Odoms. So they're operating on all gears there, I guess, you'd say.
And then on the defensive side of the ball, Greg Robinson is the new defensive coordinator. This is the third coordinator they've had in three years going back to Coach Carr's time, so with that comes probably a little bit of a learning curve, but they've got some very good players over there. Ezeh is an outstanding linebacker. Certainly Brandon Graham is a guy that shows out every week, and then their secondary Warren I think is a very good football player back there.
The specialists seem to be playing very well, and they play very hard on special teams. I think it's also very, very important to recognize that Coach Rodriguez has done an outstanding job here in the past year and a half. He's got it turned. They're playing very, very well, and he needs to be complimented for that.
With that, I'll take some questions, and we'll take it from there.

Q. How far does this game go as Michigan State is trying to establish itself as the top University in this state, and what does this game mean with that overall?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think this game obviously, I don't know if it's bragging rights or whatever it is, throughout the entire state, and it's sort of you either win it or lose it. As I said last week, you're either going to walk the streets or walk the alleys. Based on what I said there, it's a year-to-year thing. It'll always be like that. I don't think that anybody is going to say, well, because we won last year, that means that you're going to win the next year.
But it's a game that we'll focus on and always focus on here and make it extremely important. I don't know if I'm answering your question, though.

Q. How important is it, though, in terms of the keep winning the game to establish dominance in the rivalry?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's very important. I mean, I think it's important.

Q. This program hasn't beaten Michigan two years in a row in 42 years. What does that mean if you can get that kind of monkey off your back, and would it mean something more to the rivalry and make it more meaningful to put that past aside?
COACH DANTONIO: You know, we try and focus on present. When I came back here, I think we had a chance to win in '07 right out here. We were up by 10, seven minutes to go, so we had an opportunity to win there. You know, last year we won, so we'll deal with what happens now.
But I wasn't here 42 years ago, I was here in '95. I know this is a very important game, and I try and deal with the present right now.
And as far as what does it mean, it's a critical game for us. It always will be, regardless of our record. I'm not going to try and sidestep that issue.

Q. Do you expect it to be a shootout?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, that will be a good question. Hopefully not, but they're certainly very talented. They've made some big plays. They have big play potential, and I think our offense has done some nice things, as well.

Q. Defensively after watching film and analyzing it, what do you need to do differently or hope to do differently?
COACH DANTONIO: I think what we have to do is make plays on the deep ball when we have an opportunity to tackle in space. And it comes down to that, we've got to make tackles. Got to play a little bit more confidently. Structurally, you know, we have to shore up certain things that are done that when you say why did that happen, was it structure or was it physical or was it a mental assignment, and from a structural standpoint we need to work there, too.
So it's a total team thing. I'm not up here to say this guy did wrong or this coach did wrong, to try and get to where we're at. But the other teams have players on scholarships, too, and at some point they've made plays, as well. So you have to compliment the other people that we've played against, too.

Q. It's one thing when young players maybe struggle, but when you see guys who aren't performing at the level that they have in the past, is that a confidence issue? How do you decipher that?
COACH DANTONIO: I sort of look at it, and you know, you go back to basics and you try and reaffirm their confidence. But I think that when you have positive energy, my take on things, is when you have positive energy on a football field, things just sort of go in that direction. If you have negative energy out there, if you're standing around waiting for a play to be made and you don't make that play, then chances are things start to happen to you.
Now, with that being said, I think, again, you play different offenses every single week, so you have to be able to change gears just like this week. This is definitely a different offense than we played against Wisconsin, so you have to be able to adjust, change gears. There's new things that you have to go back and say, okay, remember when we did this or we're going to do this at this point in time with this type of team. So there's some things like that in terms of mental assignments that we have to be on.
But really, I think, when you say confidence, whether you say positive energy or excitement, we have to capture that, and I'm pretty confident, very confident that we will.

Q. Do you think you're getting to the point where you need to go with one quarterback to help your offense and let that guy get into a rhythm, stay in a rhythm?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think our quarterbacks have opportunity to get in rhythm. If you look at the first three games, we gave each quarterback an opportunity to get into rhythm. Notre Dame a little bit less maybe, but still had a couple series there to get going when we talk about Keith. This past game maybe it wasn't quite as evident, but we still give both guys opportunities, and I don't think that it'll be any different.
But the number one thing to me is who's moving the football team, how are we performing and those type of things. Are we turning the ball over, is the football team moving, and who gives us the best chance to win. That's what we'll look at as we go through it.
Both guys have been great. They've been extremely mature the way they've handled things.

Q. You have ten "or" starters listed on the depth chart. Is that something you'd kind of like to see work itself out to where you have one guy or is the competition something you like to see?
COACH DANTONIO: I think competition is something that we like to see. Guys have game experience; how they play in every single game or as the game continues on, if they're playing well, they're staying in. Sometimes we just want to play guys to allow them to grow, too. But a lot of our players have game experience, so that should be a positive for us.
You know, a couple guys are nicked up so you see either-or, that type of thing, and then in other situations we play them. But you see guys out there playing 30 snaps. So I think it's fair to say that we could play either-or, could start either of them.

Q. Could you talk about the trouble Forcier brings with the pass and the run and him bouncing around all over the place and also the fact that he's led them to a couple game-winning drives late in the game as a freshman?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, he's shown great composure when the game is on the line, especially for a true freshman. He's got definitely -- there's definitely a run-pass threat with him. If something is not there, he's got some wiggle room and can get north and run with the ball. There's some designed runs for him, as well. I think the offense he operates in fits him very, very well, that he's able to do a lot of things with it.
And then you see Robinson come in and do a lot of things, as well. He's a very exciting runner, as well. Both those guys should be complimented. They're both freshmen. I think that they're doing an outstanding job right now.

Q. There's a lot of talk about your backfields, both offensively and defensively. How do you assess the play of your front line on offense and defense?
COACH DANTONIO: Our offensive line?

Q. Offense and defense.
COACH DANTONIO: I would say our offensive line has performed pretty well. I think through the first three games we've not had as many rush yardages as we've had, but we've worked without our center really for almost two and a half games, and when you take your starting center out of there, it's difficult.
I think John Stipek has done an outstanding job filling in for him. He was a defensive lineman when he came here, so he's made that adjustment. He's worked very hard and is very proficient in terms of no mishandled snaps, and he's been very, very good with assignments.
At the right guard, right tackle, we've gone through some guys. We had J'Michael Deane in there and we had Moss in there and then we worked with McGaha in there a little bit, we've got D.J. Young in there a little bit, we've moved Moss over to guard, so we're working a little bit with different people.
We lost Foreman with an ankle injury in the Notre Dame game, so we were without him last game. Could have played an emergency situation, but that for us -- Nitchman over at left guard, Ethan Ruhland played left guard at Notre Dame, so we've got some different guys going in there interchangeable, but the main thing that you see is you don't see a lot of missed assignments. We need to get better in terms of technique, but you don't see a lot of missed assignments.
And we've got young running backs. A couple times I think the running backs could have slid one way or the other and gained additional yards.
From a defensive front perspective, Jerel Worthy is a red-shirt freshman, and I've seen his play increase greatly. The quality of his play increased greatly from game one and probably had his best game last week probably. So I think he's playing steady. Pickelman is a little banged up. Wilson was a little banged up last week. He'll be fully healthy this week. And our defense being played with Trevor Anderson and Colin Neely on the other side has been okay.
We need to provide more pass rush and get off blocks, use your hands better, and apply four-man pressure a little bit better. But that's where I would assess it right now.

Q. How critical has Greg Jones been to your defense with what he's able to do?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, he plays around a lot of things, he plays around a lot of people, so he's able to get off blocks. He's very instinctive in terms of how he handles blockers in his face, and he has the ability to get off them and fly to the football. The guy makes 10, 12 tackles, 13 tackles a game, obviously he's very important to your program and to your defense.
With that said, he can always improve, whether it's little things schematically or pass coverage or whatever, but I don't think that he is hitting on all cylinders yet. I think you'll see the best of him to come.

Q. Is that because of the pass coverage?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I think that, again, there's a lot of things going on in there schematically relative to who we play game one to game two, three, four, five, six, and there's some times that there's -- Wisconsin as I just said is different than Michigan's offense. So you have to adapt.
He's playing middle linebacker full-time for the first time. Last year he was a Sam linebacker, outside backer; he's making the adjustment to there. While you can do that in spring practice and in fall practice against our offense and be right on target, when things start to change on you, there's an adjustment, so sometimes he sees things for the first time. But he's extremely active. He's an outstanding blitzer, gets off blocks.
I think people are turning their protection to him at times.
But outstanding player for us, so he's critical to our program. Very important.

Q. How would you assess your coverage on kickoff, and where do you think that is right now?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, on our punt coverage, I think pretty good. We hit the guy late, got sort of pushed or whatever, but didn't focus on the ball coming down and had a 15-yard penalty running into the Wisconsin game, and other than that they've had one return on us, I believe, punt return.
Our kickoff coverage, we've got to get the ball down there deep. We lose Boleski, who had the ability to kick it in the end zone. We're getting it down there inside the 5. We've got to cover. It's been okay. I think a couple people have run a couple back to the 40 or so. So I haven't been completely pleased with it, but for the most part I think we had a tackle on the 15 last week, a couple of them down inside the 20 or so. I think we were clipped on the one that went out to the 41. But there was no call on it, so you deal with it.
You know, as we assess it, I think we have people running down hard and making plays, and I think schematically it's correct.

Q. During big weeks like this, a lot of coaches kind of batten down the hatches a little bit, change how they do things. You're having players come and talk here and everything. Is this a reflection of maybe a more bunker mentality because Michigan is here or because of the record, or what's causing the change?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's Michigan week. You want the focus to be there. I also think that you want your older players pretty much to be spending time with the media. I think that's natural. We don't need a lot of -- I think right now we don't need a lot of outside things that are going to just confuse the issue for us. We need to group ourselves together. The people in that room know what's going on in that room in terms of what we're doing, in terms of why there's a problem, and we need to focus on dealing with that problem, and we need to come out completely focused and we need to come out with great team solidarity in everything that we do, which we will. I'm very confident of that.

Q. You were here for the '99 game and the significance of that, that big win. Given the cast of characters that were involved in that game, everyone from Tom Brady to Boo Boo Thompson, what does it mean to you to just kind of see the talent that was on the field then, the significance of the game, and does it mean any more to you now given the paths so many people have taken in that game and just the roles that they've played since?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, I remember all the way back to the '95 game, and I think I've mentioned that before when Derrick Mason made the catch down here and Tony Banks threw the ball to Muhsin Muhammad in the end zone, and Derrick Mason and Muhsin Muhammad have gone on to have outstanding careers. I remember the six interceptions out here, as well. I think three of them were by Charles Woodson.
So I remember that, I remember the '97 game, I remember the '98 game, Plaxico Burress going down on the kickoff, we blooped it, blew up the guy that's getting the ball and it was a very close game at halftime until they scored with 22 seconds to go and then kicked and we fumbled and then they scored again. You tend to remember it all because you put so much into it.
When you work 85, 90 hours a week preparing for one single moment, you tend to remember those things. This will be no different, just like last year, just like the year before. We'll come ready to play, I can assure you that.

Q. When you say you're not going to sidestep the issue of the importance of this game, you, in fact, did that right out of the gate here with your how long are we going to bow down to Michigan to the reaction to the little brother comment. You by intent made it a point to make Michigan a priority here, didn't you, where you felt it needed to be?
COACH DANTONIO: Absolutely. Is that what you're saying? I'm not going to sidestep the issue.

Q. Can you elaborate on that and why?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, because I feel like every football team needs a rivalry. Every team needs a rivalry, every program needs a rivalry, everybody needs a game -- I don't care where you're at, they need a game that is special to their program. They need a game that sets everybody up. They need a game for their fans that sets everything up. We they need to play for something. I think that's natural. I don't care if I'm at Zanesville high school playing against the Newark Wildcats. I don't care if I was at Cincinnati or playing against Louisville, but every program needs a game. That's just the way I want to always deal with our program. I want our players to be excited about playing one particular game in person, and I want to be focus.
To me because I've been here before, that game was the Michigan game, and I think you can safely say for most people in this state, that's probably the same thing, at least if you're green.

Q. Three takeaways in 282 defensive snaps. What can coaches do about that, and how important is it to do something about it before Saturday?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, when you look at our field chart and you look at our drive chart and how people are getting point A to point B, we've got to get the ball on our side of the 50 on the short field for our offense some, and we've not been able to do that because of turnovers. We've done it a couple times with returns, but we've not done it with turnovers. You work on them, you talk about them, but it's that positive energy I think. When things are rolling, things are rolling. And when there's excitement there, the ball is coming out.
If you're waiting for it to happen, sometimes it doesn't happen. Compliment the teams that we played; they've taken care of the ball. But I don't think there's any doubt that turnovers in the game of football is critical to winning and losing. Just like you saw last week, I think the game -- even though they had some long drives, the game would have been closer had we not turned the ball over. The game would have definitely been closer had we gotten those turnovers.
So even though it's only an eight-point game at the end because you play 60 minutes, we sort of faded in the fourth quarter because of a couple turnovers, and I think in the fourth quarter it went from a seven-point game all of a sudden to a little more.

Q. Big picture you guys have made strides in in-state recruiting the past couple years. How important is in-state recruiting against Michigan and in general?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it speaks more probably to younger players as a basis -- as you get into your senior year, relationships are already formed. Recruiting has become so, I guess -- what's the word I want to use? I think people are making decisions earlier, and so there are relationships that are developed earlier. You're recruiting guys as juniors, heavily recruiting them as juniors, having them onto your campus, relationships -- some people go look at this player as opposed to this other player based on what you run and what you do defensively and offensively. So there's those different types of things.
But I do think in the hearts of young people, the 9th and 10th graders that are coming, I think that you're battling there even more intently maybe. But that would just be my sense of it.

Q. Johnny Adams of course missed the Notre Dame game, an unfortunate loss. Is he any closer to getting onto the field?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, he is. We didn't play him last week because we thought about should we red-shirt him, should we not, because we could red-shirt him with our situation basically. I felt like Johnny is like a starter for us. He missed the Notre Dame game. We didn't play him last week, so there's still that thought, what are we going to do, are we going to red-shirt or not. Last week we went into the situation saying we would hold him. I'm not sure that we'll do that this week. I think we'll play him.

Q. Glenn Winston seemed to emerge a little bit more last week. Is he getting to the point where he may be featured more or possibly moving into the starting rotation?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I guess I would say what old Bruce used to say. You know what he used to say? "You can't starve the horse that pulls the load," which means that if he's running it downhill and running it well, he's going to get the ball.

Q. You talked a little bit about players that made impact in past games. Can you talk about maybe Blair White? Last year he was that guy, and how his career has taken off really since the Michigan-Michigan State game last year.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, Blair had an outstanding second half of the season really last year, really emerged as I think a great player for us, not just in the Michigan game but prior to that game when Cunningham and Mark Dell were out a little bit, and then Blair White sort of started to become the feature guy, and I think he had a great game obviously in the Michigan game, Wisconsin game, as well, Northwestern game, Indiana game. But he'll certainly be ready to play this week.
It's an important game for all of our players, especially the ones who have played in this game before. They understand what it means. They understand the rivalry. I think it takes a guy with some experience here having been in this game to really understand the meaning of it and all the things that go along with it. So he'll be ready. But I think he's had an outstanding career.

Q. Is there any sense of frustration that a quarterback hasn't emerged from the other one, or do you like how they're so close and pushing each other?
COACH DANTONIO: No, I'm not at all frustrated with either quarterback. I think that as we progress through, if they deserve an opportunity to play based on their performance on the field, they've played. Cousins had a great game against Notre Dame, played very well before that. I think Keith has played well, didn't play as much this past game, but then when he came in at the end, he played pretty well. Very well at the end, the last six minutes.

Q. You've pushed for physical play on both sides of the ball. Last year's game seemed to be one where you guys won in many ways with blunt force trauma almost. How comfortable do you feel with that philosophy going into this game despite these recent losses?
COACH DANTONIO: I won't, or we won't, allow the recent losses to affect our performance in this game or our mindset coming into this game. It'll be what it'll be; you know, it'll get done on the field. I think that certainly Michigan comes in here with the same type of mindset, so it ought to be a battle. I feel very confident our players will be ready to play.

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