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December 20, 2011

Mark Dantonio

THE MODERATOR:  Head Coach Mark Dantonio.
COACH DANTONIO:  Merry Christmas to everybody here.
I'll just get going here.  We've got our last practice today to prepare for the University of Georgia.  Think it will be a great contest.  We'll go five practices down there, so it will give us about 10 practices, then obviously we went an extra week with our championship format.
We did prepare.  We haven't been off football very much.  Certainly when you play 14 weeks of football, it's been quite a while.
Georgia.  When you look at Georgia, from my perspective, first of all you look at the head football coach.  I think he's brought a great deal of stability to the program there.  He's developed a culture there.  He's been tremendously successful.  He'll provide us with a great challenge.
When you look at them from a defensive standpoint, I think it's interesting when you characterize them with us a little bit.  They rank in the top 10 in four different categories which is exactly what we do.  We rank in the top 10 as well in four different categories.
Similar in defense:  they're No.3, we're No.5.  Pass efficiency:  they're in the top 10, we're No.12.  We are in the top 10 in four different statistics, as they are.  So a lot of comparisons there.
As I said earlier, Todd Grantham, their coordinator, was here with us at Michigan State for I believe three seasons, '96, '97 and '98.  Does a tremendous job.  Has a history in the NFL.  Very active defense.  They play a 3‑4.  I think their personnel is based from a 3‑4 but play a 4‑3 as well.  Very active in the secondary.  Jones and Rambo are two All‑Americans they have.  Boykin a great corner as well.
When I look at them, they're very physical.  They play a lot of guys, zone pressure, difficult to run on, difficult to throw on.  I think they have 30 some sacks.  I think we have 40 or so.  A lot of similar statistics there.  But it will be a challenge for our offense and we're looking forward to that.
On the offensive side of the ball, when you look at them I think it all starts with their quarterback, Aaron Murray.  Again, some similar things offensively.  Think they average a little bit over 31 points a game.  We average a little over 30 points a game offensively.  Their quarterback and our quarterback are both in the top 25 in passing efficiency.  They both run the ball very similar in a lot of respects.  They run the ball with three runningbacks.  Crowell, a true freshman sort of heads up their running game.  Big offensive line.  Charles is an outside tight end, No.7, No.12 King, wide receiver, big‑play guy.  Obviously they get some big plays from their runningbacks.
When you look at them, again, there's some similarities there in terms of what they do and what we do.  They are a no‑huddle team but operate from a pro‑style offense, fullback, those type of things.  Also with three‑wide receiver sets, shotgun passing, those types of things.
Special teams are always going to be a big key in any football game.  But should be a great matchup.  Excited about going down there.  Just getting back to the opportunity to win 11 games, those type of things.
I'll take some questions and we'll go from there.

Q.  When you're facing a no‑huddle team that gets the ball out that quickly, how does it affect your defense scheme‑wise?  Is it much more difficult to get pressure against a team like that?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, I think that's the norm right now in college football.  Not the norm, but a lot of people are doing it.  We played a lot of no‑huddle football teams, some with a much more rapid tempo than Georgia will use.
It keeps you off balance.  We're going to have to prepare from that, especially from a conditioning standpoint.  We've been conditioning extra.  Had the indoor up to 80 plus degrees every day.
Usually I think what happens is you settle in on the tempo of the football game as you go.  We've had a tendency to play a lot of football players when we've done this.  We've played a lot of football players in general on defense throughout the season.
It's not something we're not used to.  They will do it out of a two‑back set as well, and they'll run the ball as well.  It's not totally passing.  We've seen quite a few people do that, Northwestern, Michigan obviously, and a few different people throughout.

Q.  Coach Rouchar says being around football in his career, this was the best coaching job he'd ever seen from you, and he said it was things we couldn't see.  Tell us what those were, please.
COACH DANTONIO:  I think that's better left to our players maybe.
I think what we've done is we've changed the culture as a group.  I don't think it's one person.  As we saw last year, this program can move forward and be successful without myself present at times, so I'm not at all surprised about that.
But I do think what we've been able to do is we've come together as a group and fought through some adverse times here, like Georgia.  After the Notre Dame game, it was a tough loss, everybody took it very hard.  But we got back moving in the right direction and were very successful.
Nebraska had the same feeling on this football team.  Again, we responded.  We responded I think with five straight victories.
So our football team knows how to handle adversity.  That's from a leadership standpoint.  Maybe it starts from the top down, but it certainly runs throughout our football program and team.
In the end, it's our players who are getting things done on the field.  In the end, it's our players that have to take ownership of a football team and they've done a tremendous job.
I've always said we have great chemistry, great leadership on the ground level, and I think our football program, the seniors, have left a thumbprint on this program.  That's what's key.
We talked yesterday about having a legacy here and passing things on to others.  I think that's what our players are going to do, our seniors will do that.  It's important we take this next step in the bowl game, that we come out energized.  That's my job, our coaches' jobs, it's all of our jobs to get excited to play.  We've done that every single game, so that will be present.

Q.  Before that Big Ten championship game, these guys obviously motivated by playing in the Rose Bowl.  Have you had to do anything to get these guys motivated to play in this bowl?
COACH DANTONIO:  We're still two weeks out from playing in this bowl.  I think that's what we have to recognize, or a little less than two weeks out.  We don't want to peak too early.  We want to be able to take things in stride.
I think the way things fell, it was important we had our banquet the day after that championship game so we could get rid of some of that feeling, we could mourn a little bit, we could move through that time of disappointment.
But as I always tell our football team, whether they're in my office for disciplinary situations or whether we've lost a game or whether somebody has gotten hurt, whatever it is, it can always get worse.  We have to focus on trying to make it better.  The way to get better is to play well and win.
Our seniors have had a great week of practice here.  It's been energized out there.  We worked extremely hard.  There's been emotion out there.  I think we're past all of that.
But we've had a number of goals here since we've come here.  One goal this last year obviously was to get to the Rose Bowl.  That's always going to be our focus because that's the epitome of being champions.  It's not so much the Rose Bowl as it is being a champion.
But the second goal we had was winning our last football game.  That remains in focus for all of us.  We'll take that to Tampa with us and we'll concentrate on getting that done and being an 11‑3 football team.  With that we'll end up somewhere maybe in the top 10, which would be a tremendous accomplishment.

Q.  Can you talk about Le'Veon Bell and how impressed you were with his finish.
COACH DANTONIO:  I think Le'Veon last year came in, played very well early in the season and sort of faded.  It became a long season for him.  He was a true freshman.  I think this season he's matured greatly and has been able to stay the course.  If anything, he's gotten stronger.  Weighs about 237 pounds, can do probably anything out there he wants to in terms of running the football, blocking, catching the football.  So obviously he's a great player for us and he'll figure in on being a tremendous player for us for the next two years as well.
But he is progressing.  That's the key.  I think everybody always needs to move forward, this program, every individual player.  Everybody needs to get better.  Nobody is going to stay the same.  Some people will fade and some people will get better.  That's the thing we want to try to improve on.  We want to try to continue to improve our program, continue to build our foundation of who we are and what we represent.

Q.  Your players talked about a healing process they did after that last game.  From your perspective, how difficult was that for Isaiah Lewis and did you have to do anything extra to help him get through that?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think he just comes to play.  He's going to be fine.  He'll be ready to play in this football game.
I think football ‑ I've said it in here many times ‑ it's really a game of inches.  You certainly saw it that last football game.  There were many inches out there.  He was in focus because of the last couple plays in the game, whether it was the punt block or whether it was the fourth‑and‑eight throw.  What we don't realize is how many plays he made in that football game as well.
He's made a lot of plays throughout the season.  We wouldn't be where we're at without Isaiah Lewis.  As a sophomore, a second‑team all‑conference pick by the coaches.  No insult here, but I think that's a little more of a higher standard because of the coach's poll because those coaches see him on film, et cetera.
He's a quick, explosive guy that plays the game the way it's supposed to be played:  all out, he goes to make plays.
I really haven't sensed any kind of disappointment in him.  He just goes about his business.  Walks out there.  He's a quiet, unassuming individual.  Always goes to work with a smile.

Q.  Coaches like to tell their players adversity is one of the greater learning tools that they can get.  Is it true for coaches as well?  If so, what have you learned about yourself in the aftermath of the Wisconsin loss?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, I think it's definitely true for coaches as well as for players.  I think these are life lessons we're all going to live and learn as we go.
But from my perspective as a coach, as any leader, let's see how he responds in the difficult times.  Very easy when you're winning to go walking around with a big smile on your face, patting everybody on the back.  When you have a tough season, when you have a particularly tough game, let's see how he responds then.  Let's see if he can regather people and keep them moving in the right direction.  Let's see if he can reestablish a program or does it slip away from him and go south in a big way?
From a coach's perspective, that's what you have to do.  I remember talking to Coach Perles one time.  He talked about that very aspect.  One of the most difficult things as the head football coach is that you've got to walk back in there after a disappointing loss and pick up not only the players, but the other coaches, secretaries.  Everybody you touch, you have to go in with a positive approach and say, We're going to get over this, we're going to get better, this is what we can learn from this.  That's what we're going to try to do.
How it's affected me, I'm like everybody else:  I understand how close we were on that particular game.  The thing about coaches, you tend to never forget things that happen to you.  Whether it's succeeding on a fourth‑and‑one‑and‑a‑half call in a national championship game as a defensive coordinator or not succeeding on a fourth‑and‑four in a championship format in the Big Ten championship game.  So you understand that.
You understand, much like my dad says ‑ I guess I start talking about my father up here ‑ but you have to take the good and the bad.  It's not all one way.  You have to be able to respond equally in both areas.
So that's how I try and take it.  You don't see me usually jumping up and down too often, nor am I hanging my head too often walking around feeling sorry for myself.
I have a great job, great group of young people, great group of coaches that I have the opportunity to be involved with on a daily basis.  That's a beautiful thing.  It's a very humbling thing.  But it's a beautiful thing and I love what I do.

Q.  Mark, overall you're going to get a lot of people back.  Some people are playing in their last game.  How much have those guys meant to this program?  Have you had a chance in the last couple weeks to think what all these seniors have done for your program?
COACH DANTONIO:  I've taken that opportunity really to sort of sit back and look at that throughout the entire year, to see what Kirk Cousins has done:  the most touchdown passes in history here, I believe the most 200‑yard games, the most wins as a quarterback, what he has meant to the inside of this program from the bottom up, in the locker room up, outside in the community.  There's a lot to take in there.
B.J. Cunningham, all‑time leading receiver.  Keith Nichol, the sacrifices he's made, the changes he's made as a player moving from a quarterback to a wide receiver.  Keshawn Martin, four years of very exciting plays in all aspects, not just catching the ball but all different types of plays.
Those guys are all special.
Joel Foreman, giving up his start to Arthur Ray in the first game of the season when he was a four‑year starter.  Probably would have started 48 or more, including bowl games, which hasn't been done around here for quite some time.  A lot of sacrifice.  A lot of laughs.  It's been great.
Garrett Celek, injuries, playing through.  Had a Celek on our football team the last eight years since I've been a head coach.  I'll miss that.  Brian Linthicum coming from Clemson has had an outstanding senior year.  Trent Robinson, all the ups, downs and rounds with Trent.  See that face smiling at me, playing hard.  Kevin Pickelman sitting on the sideline right now with crutches, being the coach on the field.  Jonathan Strayhorn, the things that he's done.
I don't know if I'm missing anybody, but I've had time to reflect on those guys and think about what they've been able to do for this program.
As I said earlier, they've left a thumbprint here.  I think that's what we all are trying to do.  I want to be able to sit there and say, Remember when so‑and‑so was here, what we did.  That is something we can use for the future.

Q.  Following up on Kirk.  You talked a lot about his impact over the years.  What do you think he can do in terms of preparing Andrew for possibly being a starter next year?  Have you seen any sort of transfer from Kirk to Andrew over the last couple years?
COACH DANTONIO:  They're very like‑minded in a lot of ways.  Very, very similar in a lot of ways.  Calm under pressure, high achievers in the classroom, high achievers in the community.  Faith‑based oriented people.  I think they both have a lot of respect for their fathers.  They have men in their life outside of football that have been role models for them.
Got a great arm.  I think what Kirk has done in the last three years has prepared Andrew.  What he'll do now is hand the ball to him maybe walking off the field.  Connor Cook will be in that race as well.  I think all indications are that Andrew Maxwell will pick up exactly where Kirk left off and be able to lead this team to many wins, understanding that there's pressure with that.
One things that Kirk has done, I think he's handled pressure.  There's no place maybe other than the head coach, the two coordinators, is there more pressure on an individual than on the quarterback of this football team.  In some ways maybe they have more pressure than anybody because they have to go out on the field and do it within seconds.  They have to make decisions.
He'll do an outstanding job.  I feel very, very comfortable with him as our quarterback.  And with Connor, as well.  He's an outstanding athlete.  He's just young.  We have another guy coming in who will be equally impressive.

Q.  I wanted to follow up on your comments about Isaiah.  Did you pull him aside, talk to him to see how he was doing, then realize he was all right?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, I talked to Isaiah right after that game and gave him a big hug.  I've also just tried to be encouraging.  We move on.  We make corrections and we move on.
The reality of that whole situation is that it's not just the one guy coming off the edge, it's everybody that's involved.  If somebody takes up the shield, which is the three guys in back, if somebody takes up that, he's left clean and he comes across the block point and there's no penalty whatsoever and we live as it is.
Although we all want to, including myself, you want to look hindsight, because it's 20/20, we're trying to win a football game.  We're sending a guy in who can make plays.  We're doing everything we can and not holding back and playing aggressively to try to win a football game.  That's what we do.
Sometimes maybe it doesn't work out but we're going to go after it.  That's what I can appreciate about Isaiah Lewis and a lot of our players.  They don't stand and watch; they go make plays.  If you're a great football player, that's what you have to do, you have to go make plays.  Every great football player that's out there, whether it's a Michael Jordan, basketball player, or a great NFL player or a great college player, they take chances and they go after it and make a play.  That's what he did.  So we move on.
As I said earlier, we wouldn't have 10 wins without him on our football game.  Extremely valuable, extremely productive football player.

Q.  Arthur has always had a very special place in your heart.  When you found out that he won the award, how did you personally feel?
COACH DANTONIO:  Sort of had that feeling of stepping back and recognizing, again, what he's done.  All the support that he has from his parents, his mom, the calls from his mother, supportive calls from his mother.  To me, when I've had a difficult day.  And his father.
Arthur, the way he goes about his business, doesn't ask for anything special, doesn't ask for any extra allowances.  He's worked hard.  Been on the scout team all year almost.  He shows up every day and works.  He's trying to get better.
With that said, Arthur Ray has power.  Would have been and still may be a tremendous football player as is.  But he has overcome a lot.  I've said it before, he sees life through a different lens.  If we can all do that at different times, it will all serve us well.
How do I feel?  When you see somebody who has a dream come true, how do you feel?  That's how I feel.  I'm glad that people recognize that.

Q.  You started out this season by saying you had to win your last one.  That was the goal of this program.  That was one of the very first things you said at the first press conference.  Would you elaborate on that?
COACH DANTONIO:  One thing we haven't done here, and we've done a lot of things here that hasn't been done for a long time, whether it's individual players accomplishing things or groups, team‑type goals, particular wins versus particular opponents, on the road, away, whatever, we've done a lot of things that haven't been done in 40 years, 20 years, whatever.  The one thing that has escaped us thus far is winning our bowl game.  That's something that we've got to be able to rectify and to make sure that we're able to do that and continue to work towards that.
We've played some very, very good teams in bowl games.  If you look at Alabama and their football team, the team that's playing in the national championship is minus five first‑round players.  We played a Georgia team in '08.  We played a very good Texas Tech team that we were down significant numbers.  We played a great BC team with the No.1 draft choice.  Now we play a Georgia team that's an outstanding football team as well.
We've never had an easy pick.  I don't think there are any easy picks when you play on January 2.  This is our third time playing in a New Year's Day type game.  So it's exciting for our football team.  It's another aspect of the culture or the state of the program that we're in right now.  The expectations are much higher.
As I said earlier, the number two goal for our entire program was win our last game and springboard next year's class, next season.  It was to spring into 2012 with a positive outlook.
That's one thing that has escaped us.  We're going to try and remedy that.

Q.  Your revamped offensive line was a question mark going into the season.  How did you see that group develop throughout the season?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think our offensive line, we knew it would be young with Dan France at left tackle, and at that Skyler Burkland at right tackle.  Two young, talented players.  We had two guys that were playing guards, McDonald and Foreman, who have been outstanding.  We had a center situation with Blake Treadwell and Travis Jackson, neither played center.  We knew we'd be starting slow with all the different things that have to happen there.
I think our offensive line has responded.  We lost two guys with injuries for the season.  Our other guys have picked up.
Bo, another guy at right tackle that had never played here.  So I guess there's five guys who have never started on the offensive line at Michigan State and played in Big Ten football at the beginning of the season.
Now those guys have a great deal of experience.  I feel like we only lose Foreman next year, so we'll have what I feel is our best offensive line group coming back.  It should be the strength of our team, one of the strengths of our football team.
When you look at us, you have to look at us, have we been able to run the football.  I think we have better later than early, probably because of the experience of the offensive line.
The one thing we've done is been able to protect our quarterback.  If you look at us, we're in the top 25 maybe in terms of protecting our quarterback.  But we've given Cousins time to throw.  He's made quick decisions, but we've given him time to throw.  Our fullbacks and tight ends are so invaluable in terms of being able to run the ball as well.  They figure into the pass protections and rushing as well.  Obviously you have to take them into consideration.
Then you have to look at the guys touching the football and ask, Have they been healthy, have they not, how have they performed.
But I think our offensive line has improved.  Mark Staten has done an outstanding job with them and will continue to do so.  Also I think our camaraderie and that offensive line as a group is outstanding.  We'll only continue to get better.
Thanks, guys.  Go Green.  Have a great Christmas.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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