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October 29, 2013

Mark Dantonio

COACH DANTONIO:  Big game, obviously.  Always a big game here.  I think in this state, I've said it many, many times, I think you grow up either green or you grow up blue.  Not too many people are any different than that in Michigan.  So it's an exciting opportunity for our players, a great challenge for our players, always has been.  It's a game that we point to every year, and it's a great rivalry game.  I think I've been, I guess, on record as saying I embrace the rivalries.  I think they're exciting for college sports and high school sports, and it just gets you going a little bit.
They've got a great football team.  This game means more than just winning and losing in state.  It's an opportunity to really sort of take control of the Legends a little bit or at least push forward.  The stakes get higher as we go.  I think it's a national game, too, because it'll have a meaning in terms of bowl implications and those type of things.
Just a great football game, and we look forward to it being a battle as it always is, hard‑hitting game, and a lot of emotion.  I'll take some questions and we'll go from there.

Q.  Coming out of Ann Arbor yesterday they talked about being out‑toughed, they talked about being bullied.  For a guy that talks about wanting a tough team, was that a compliment?
COACH DANTONIO:  You know, I stay away from those things.  I'm going to worry about our football team right now.  You know, I think that game in 2011 was a tough football game, a lot of emotion, and sometimes things spun out of control maybe a little bit, as well.  But I think it was a great football game.
My main focus is to get our players playing hard as we always have.  We're going to play tough, we're going to play within the rules, and the refs have to control the football game.  That's very important because it goes on both ends.  That's where I'm at with that.

Q.  How is defending Devin Gardner different than defending Denard Robinson?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think that our feelings are that Devin Gardner can make a lot of plays in space obviously.  He's a bigger guy.  I think he runs through tackles a little bit more effectively maybe.  They do a lot of different things with him that they didn't do with Denard, probably because the offenses conceptually are different.  I think it's a little bit more power game with Michigan right now than it was maybe prior to.
But they're both outstanding players.  They both make plays.  I think it'll be a key component of the game that we be able to control his running ability, and then obviously throwing the football to Funchess, Gallon and the rest.

Q.  (No microphone.)
COACH DANTONIO:  I think they're both excellent players.  I mean, you can't refute what Denard Robinson has been able to do in his career.

Q.  If I'm reading body language right, you seem to have a genuine respect or like for Brady Hoke.  Accurate?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, that's accurate.  But I will say this, so you guys can print all this:  Just because you like somebody in the family doesn't mean you like the whole family.  (Laughter.)  But I have a great deal of respect for Brady and his coaching abilities.  Very close with his brother back in the day.  Good man.

Q.  What does having a program like Michigan, which is viewed as one of the top seven or eight kind of historical programs, in state do when you're trying to build your own program?  What kind of challenges does that present having something like that next door?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, we've got great programs throughout the Midwest that have been around for a long time.  I think we compete with the University of Michigan every single day, every single week, whether it's on recruiting, whether it's fundraising, a lot of different things.  I think everybody at Michigan State, from talking to Tom Izzo, they're competing against some of the same things.
I've never really thought about it like that because it sort of is what it is.  I just worry about what I can control, and we try and do the very best we can in terms of the things we can control, and based on my count right now, we're up.

Q.  Funchess is a big physical guy they've split out a lot.  What kind of match‑up problems does he create for you defensively?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think he's a big‑bodied receiver down the field.  He's a great mismatch tight end.  When you've got a mismatch tight end, you can move him around in different positions, which they do.  He's always going to be a threat to catch the ball, and he's got great hands.  He's improved in terms of how big he's gotten and his power as he continues to get bigger and stronger as he goes through the program, just like all college players do.  I think he's a big part of their offense based on what you see.  Makes big‑time plays.

Q.  Aside from all the words that were exchanged five years ago, do you think your four victories in a row revived this rivalry and made a statement to them?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, I think for it truly to be a rivalry, it cannot be one‑sided.  I mean, it can still be a rivalry, I guess, but I think it makes‑‑ when it's much more competitive, obviously things take on a whole new meaning.  I'd say you're right.  It's just words.  If you can't back up the words, it's just empty words, and it just becomes‑‑ it sort of gets lost in its meaning.
I can tell everybody is sort of‑‑ they're not sure, should I ask that question today or shouldn't I.  Sort of quiet here today.

Q.  You mentioned a few weeks ago that you did notice the skywriting.  Upon hearing that it was Michigan that paid for that stuff, did you think much of that?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, I told you, my high school coach was here so I wasn't really quite sure about that.  But I did see that it came out that they paid for it.  What can you say?  Why do you want to get me started?  You know the drill, guys.

Q.  Last year things weren't going as well here and they were heavily favored in that game and you could hear a collective relief in that stadium.  Was there anything positive that came out of that loss for you guys in terms of understanding things weren't great from a physical competitive standpoint?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think when you look at 2012, really, and I've said this before, in all of the football games that we played, we sort of‑‑ they were so close, we sort of ran out of time a little bit.  We ran out of time at the end of the game.  Did we really lose the football game and get buried?  In my mind we took one on the chin.  The rest of them could have gone one way or the other, and we lost them.  Credit U of M for that, and that's what I did last year.  I thought it was a very well‑played football game.  I thought it was a tough football game.  I was very proud of our football team and how we handled ourselves, but we came up short.  So you're going to have that happen sometimes.  I thought it was a great football game last year, tough, hard‑nosed football game, and went down to the wire.

Q.  After practice last week a few players were wearing different jerseys with a little gold symbol.  Is that anything we might see carry over to the field on Saturday?
COACH DANTONIO:  No, that's just an opportunity to sort of look at different uniforms for next year in terms of‑‑ that's Nike.  Always promoting Nike.  No, that has nothing to do with it.

Q.  Obviously Connor is still fairly inexperienced.  This will be his first time as a starter in a rivalry like this.  Are you concerned at all with that, or how do you get more consistency from him closer to what we felt last week and not two weeks ago?
COACH DANTONIO:  No, I'm really not that concerned.  I have a lot of confidence in him as a player.  I think he's resilient.  I think he can raise his level of play even further.  You're going to play big games.  Every game for him has been a big game, so when you start equating your anxiety level entering your first start as a major college quarterback or your first Big 10 start, I mean, how high can you go?  And it's going to just be‑‑ it's going to be like that.  It's going to be exciting for him, and he's going to have some anxiety there, but he'll play himself through that.  After the first snap basically everybody just sort of gets down to business and plays.
I think that's the way it is for everybody.  There's a lot of people watching the football game.  There's a lot of national attention, but you have to be so focused on what you're doing that it takes you away from that, that you just are centered in on your job, and I think that's what he'll do.  So I'm looking forward to seeing him play and watching him and watching him grow, and I think this is another opportunity for him to grow as a quarterback in this program.

Q.  Do you anticipate any changes to your home uniform for Saturday's game, a different helmet‑‑
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, you ask tough questions.  Would I anticipate it?  I guess I would anticipate it.  Would you expect it?  I don't know that I expect it.

Q.  I think by my count yesterday, the word physical was used about 350 times to describe your team in Ann Arbor.  Does Michigan have an identity that stands out to you?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, absolutely they have an identity.  I think when you look at them, they have a winning identity.  They find a way to win.  I think they've done that throughout the year.  I think they play a tough brand of football.  Their defense flies around.  They give up 90 yards a game rushing the football.  That's not very many.  They're very well‑coached football team.  Offensively they want to run power football now, which talks about toughness.  I mean, that is a form of toughness.  They're not trying to‑‑ they're going to have tricks and things like that, like everybody does, but they're going to try and go at you, and I think that's their mentality.  I think they're right on.  It's a physical football game.  Football is a physical game, and if you have two opponents playing what I believe is their best performances, usually it's with physicality involved in it.  I'm sure they're speaking that.  We talk to our players about it, as well.

Q.  Since that Notre Dame game when I think there were four pass interferences, I think I counted three in the last four games.  Is that a testament to some adjustments you've made with your corners, and how much of a concern is that when you play an offense like Michigan's with the explosive receivers they have?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, it's always going to be a concern.  I think we play tight coverage, we're going to be on players.  You've got to look at the technique that's involved.  I think we've tried to really coach it, coach it hard.  I also think it's being officiated and people are looking at the way people are playing and adapting to the times I think a little bit as officials, as well.  I think they're doing a good job doing it.  I think it's very important that the game is officiated on Saturday and things are held in check, that it doesn't go one way or the other, and that's their responsibility, because there's a lot of holds that don't get called, too.

Q.  Other than the points allowed, when you look at your defensive stats, what matters most to you?  Is it turnovers, rushing yards?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think turnovers matter.  Turnovers win and lose football games for you.  I know this big stat in this game, if you rush‑‑ the team that rushes for the most yards have won 34 out of‑‑ some crazy number.  It's up there.  It's almost 99 percent or 98 percent of the time.  But I think turnovers are the things that can hurt you the quickest.  It's tough to overcome when you're ‑2 in the turnover margin.  You've really got to be a dominant football team to win.  Depending on when the turnovers happen, but I think turnovers are probably the most crucial aspect to me.

Q.  When you look at your season stats what are you most proud of other than scoring defense?
COACH DANTONIO:  Our turnover margin.  Our turnover margin is very good.  Our possession time is very good.  Those are probably the two things that really‑‑ to me we're getting a lot of opportunities because we're going three‑and‑out a lot on defense, which means we're getting more opportunities, and then if you really look at us carefully, we are driving the football.  Initially we weren't getting‑‑ we got in the red zone and we were kicking field goals.  Now we're scoring touchdowns.  We have more explosive plays, gaining confidence.  But I think those two aspects, the turnovers and the possession time.  Those two aspects.  More team‑oriented.

Q.  You mentioned the rushing stat.  Back to last year's game, I think Clark had to start, France got hurt, your offensive line was really banged up as a whole.  How different do you feel about that unit heading into this game, and then how important is it that it play the same way it's been playing the last few weeks?
COACH DANTONIO:  As I remember last year Donavon Clark got the start.  He was a red‑shirt freshman.  Blake Treadwell was playing for the first time really full‑time, and Jack Allen was in his second game, so we're a different offensive line than we were last year.  We're more experienced.
Doesn't mean we don't have our work cut out for us.  I think U of M's defensive line is very formidable.  They've got good players up there.  They're a well‑coached football team.  Their linebackers run to the football very effectively.  As I just said, people have not run the ball on them very effectively.
I like our offensive line.  I think they're doing a great job, but as we go during this season, the stakes get higher, the performances of our players must get better, as well.  We'll continue to try and improve on who we are.

Q.  Is this a week where you see the players taking more of the leadership and sort of motivation into their own hands?  And who would some of those players be compared to normal weeks?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think this is the time of the season where your players start to take more.  It's not necessarily the game.  The game gets everybody jacked up because it is a rivalry game, etcetera.  As the season goes along, your seniors start to take over, especially in November, especially when you're in a position in November to make some things happen that are special, and your seniors begin to‑‑ they're going into their last November now, their last four games of their careers.  So I think they tend to take over and expect a little bit more effort.  Chasing excellence, whatever you want to call it, but I think our seniors take over in that vein.

Q.  When you were at Ohio State your arch rival was Michigan.  Now you're at Michigan State and your arch rival is Michigan.
COACH DANTONIO:  I've lived it all.

Q.  What's that done to shape your feeling about Michigan?
COACH DANTONIO:  Shaped my feeling?  It's gone from‑‑ I can't even answer that question.  I've sort of been in‑‑ I think I've played them 15 times now.  It's sort of engrained into who we are or who my family is.  It's just sort of been a norm every year since 1995 but three.  So I really haven't given it that much thought.  I know the time is coming around, and I know it's just part of the deal.
I have a great deal of respect for who they are and the game, a great deal of respect for that, and I think that everybody should understand that.  But at the same time, I'm a competitor, too, just like our players are, so there are times when I need to stand up and be accountable for who I am and the position I hold because I represent a lot of people.  A lot of people have feelings towards this game.  I think that's important to recognize, because that's a part of it, too.

Q.  Taking it back to football here, you talk a lot about hidden yardage, and special teams is something that you've talked about throughout the season.  Your teams have their struggles with kickoff returns as far as where they stand nationally and the punt returns have bothered you.  How have you worked on that, and how much of a concern is it for this specific game?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, sometimes statistics can be a little bit misleading, because for example, kickoff returns we've had nine opportunities in eight games, and what that tells you is they're not kicking off very much to us, which tells you that they're not scoring very much.  Then when they have kicked off, they've kicked into the end zone because we've only had nine returns.  One of them was a squib so you can take that out of there.  Two of them were‑‑ had a little problem on the back end, so we really haven't had the opportunity.  I think the next team statistically has 27 in the Big 10, I think.  So that's a little bit skewed.
As far as our punt returns, we've got to handle the ball on the back end.  I don't think there's any question about that.  We've got good players, got to make good decisions.  We have electrifying players back there, but that's a big part of the game.  It's a major, major part of the game.  We're working to get that addressed, and obviously I talked about turnovers, how important it is.  We can't have that happen.  But our players understand that.  We'll put people back there that are confident and ready to go.  They'll make good decisions.

Q.  What kind of impact has Damion Terry had or how much does it help for him to be a part of this this week, and also looking forward, what kind of improvements has he made as you maybe look forward to his red‑shirt freshman season?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, Damion has done a great job on our scout team.  He's a guy that can imitate Devin Gardner probably as well as anybody, certainly maybe on this football team.  You're never going to fully get it, but he's got a great arm, he's got good running ability.  He's about the same size so he can move around and do some of those different things.  So that'll be good for us to have that this week.
As far as him growing as a football player, I think you tend to grow your red‑shirt year.  There's a lot of transition.  There's a lot of different things that you have to go through, whether it's socially, academically, football related, and he's just allowed right now, he can be a college student, he can be a freshman in college.  He doesn't have to have all the pressures on him that he would have if he were playing right now.  He's got that kind of ability, there's no question he has that kind of ability, but there's a lot to learn at that position, and I thought it was best, and I think it's best currently, too, that we hold him out this year and watch him grow.

Q.  How is this week different for you personally sort of outside these walls?  Do you hear from a lot more former players than you usually would, have trouble sleeping the night before the game?  What lets you know that it's Michigan week away from here?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, first of all, I don't have trouble sleeping, and I think it's important that we peak on Saturday, not on Tuesday.  So going to try and make it just like we do all the other weeks as much as we can.  There's certain things that we will do that's associated with this week, but for the most part, we've got to prepare and have an attention to detail in terms of how we prepare.
As far as, yeah, I do hear from a lot of former players.  That's a good thing because it's personal for a lot of people.  I don't think that's any different than the people down the road.  They're probably hearing from people, as well.  But that goes along with it.  That goes along with any big football game, though, that we're playing.  We're going to hear from past players, and that speaks to the relationships we have with our former players.  There's nothing better than to have former players come back, be with you.
Flozell Adams will be our honorary captain this week so he'll be in town.  We'll probably have to have a bigger table at pregame.  It's just a good thing.  It's a good thing for our program.  It's a good thing for our former players to be involved.

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