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November 12, 2013

Mark Dantonio

COACH DANTONIO:  First of all, I just want to congratulate our field hockey team, winning the Big 10 championship, and then also our men's soccer team for their big win at Big Bear Trophy against Michigan, so I just want to congratulate those two programs.  Relative to where we're at, coming off a bye week so we've had a chance to regroup as we've talked about a little bit, and I think our players have been refreshed.  We got an opportunity to look ahead.  We've allowed sort of the dust to settle a little bit in terms of where the conference is at and really where we go from here.
We've talked among our players about how the next three games are so important, I think, in the outcome of this football season.  Got a great challenge in Lincoln waiting for us.  Nebraska is a very good football team.  When you look at them offensively, obviously Taylor Martinez is maybe doubtful to play, but I think Tommy Armstrong and Kellogg have done an outstanding job.  Tommy Armstrong is going to be a tremendous player for them, he's a red‑shirt freshman, he's making all the throws, making runs, making things work, operating and functioning, and distinguishing himself in crunch time as well as Kellogg at the end of the Northwestern game.
Got a big play receiver in Bell, outstanding running back in Abdullah.  Offensive line has been injured a little bit, but they find a way.  Defensively, I think they're playing much better than they had earlier in this season, and fast linebackers, quick‑reacting linebackers, canceled gaps in front.  Randy Gregory I think is an emerging star, No.44, for them.  Ankrah is obviously very, very solid.  Back end in the secondary, can run, tackle, plays aggressively, and special teams are solid, very, very solid.  So they've got a good football team.  Be difficult to win in Lincoln.  We go in there with an opportunity.  We need to understand with that opportunity comes sacrifice, as well.

Q.  You had mentioned when Riley originally moved up to offense, you didn't want to make the move if he wasn't going to play.  Obviously this hasn't worked out.  Is he getting any reps on defense at all?
COACH DANTONIO:  He got a little bit of reps on defense but not to where he was able to play and function, I think, as a linebacker right now.  But I think he's heading in that direction as a football player long‑term.  Where he's at right now, though, is he does a nice job.  He does a good job.  I don't want to talk about injuries, he's nicked up a little bit, but he's an outstanding player on special teams for us, he's involved in all of those, and he gets reps at fullback and he's got game reps at fullback.  He can go in there and be extremely functional.
But I do think that that's where he's heading because I had him penciled in as a tailback.  He's got good ability, it's just the other guys have really come on.  I think Langford has really come on.  He's giving you a guy that can really be a home‑run threat, and every time he gets the call and it's his number in the backfield, you sort of anticipate him making something special happen.
I also think Delton Williams has come on and done a nice job as a complement to that, and then Nick Hill is very solid, as well.

Q.  When you look at the situation that Nebraska has right now at quarterback about the possibility of Martinez being out or maybe being out longer, how do you guys go into a game‑planning situation like that?  Do you have to throw things in this week to prepare for him just in case?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, I think offensively they are who they are a little bit conceptually.  There's certainly a difference when Kellogg goes in the game I think as opposed to Armstrong.  But the difference between Armstrong and Martinez, experience, but I think they're going to try and do the same things with Armstrong long‑term that they do with Martinez.  Taylor was such a great runner that could take it the distance as you saw last year when something broke down or whatever the case, so he's a very good football player, but I do think that Tommy Armstrong is an exceptional football player as a red‑shirt freshman, and to take on that responsibility, he's doing a tremendous job.

Q.  I guess the last time you went to Lincoln I think I read Kirk Cousins threw for 86 yards, something like 11 of 27.  Is it still the same scheme and what makes their scheme so difficult?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, I think they are‑‑ they do what they do, much like we do.  They sort of do what they do and they do it well.  What they do is they match patterns effectively, a lot of man concepts, man‑into‑zone concepts so you can double‑talk there a little bit, man into zone.  So relative they're playing zone but they're playing man underneath it.  They do a nice job, their linebackers are active, their front cancel gaps, so when the ball is run, the ball is going to spill a lot of times because of how they play their front, so they're runners, and I think they play a lot of nickel and three wide‑out situations, and they get on you.
That was a problem a couple years ago, and I think hopefully we learned from that problem and we addressed those issues.  But it comes down at the end of the day, it's about players, not plays.  We've got two weeks to look at the plays, so inevitably, though, the players are going to have to make throws and catches and going to have to defend against the rush, protect our quarterback, and probably, as with every football game, the team that makes the least amount of mistakes, and usually most of those mistakes are usually mental mistakes or mistakes relative to ball security, is the team that's going to have the upside to win.

Q.  You've talked a lot since you came to Michigan State about dreaming big, having big goals, embracing big obstacles.  Since your program has never beaten Nebraska, how much of that is an emphasis to you to not really run from that but to embrace the challenge that that presents?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, we've never run from facing the University of Nebraska, but that is the one football team that we have not beaten since coming here, so that remains a goal of ours.  But I think there are bigger and more‑important things to worry about than just‑‑ we've got to beat Nebraska to accomplish our goals, and that's why it's such a big game.  But that is a fact, as well.
But they're a good football team.  They've got a great tradition.  They've got a great environment to play in.  It's going to be exciting to go into that environment and play, and our players have to understand what that's all about.  The last time we went there, I don't know that our players understood the environment.  A little different.  So this year at least we have that experience behind us, and now we can move forward.

Q.  You referenced this during the bye week.  Could you reflect a little bit on the Nebraska of the 1990s?  I know you're not running from anybody, and I don't know if Kansas ran, but it was certainly a different situation for you there, I would imagine?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, I had a good friend of mine that had a bet with a guy that‑‑ this is when the Big Red Machine was rolling, as my wife used to call it.  Had a bet with a guy that the University of Kansas would not beat the University of Nebraska in that century.  He made the bet in the '70s.  So that will tell you where they were at as a program at that point in time.
We almost beat them.  We had an opportunity to beat them, went for two in '93, went the length of the field and scored, went for two, we could have went for one and tied it but they didn't have a tiebreaker back then so we went for two and didn't get it, so we lost by one.
They had a great Coach Osborne, Coach Devaney, who obviously had Michigan State ties, developed a great program there, and Coach Osborne did a tremendous job, and they were at a level within themselves.

Q.  Do you think anybody (inaudible)?
COACH DANTONIO:  I'm sure there are certain programs that have met that level, but very, very few.

Q.  You talk about the atmosphere.  I remember walking off the field with you there the last time and people were giving your team an ovation.  You almost were like, okay, do you recognize‑‑
COACH DANTONIO:  They're good winners.

Q.  But when you talk about‑‑
COACH DANTONIO:  They're kind winners, yeah.  (Laughter).

Q.  When you talk about that environment, if you had to put it into words, what makes that environment one of the most special in college football?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, they're the only game in town really.  In the state of Nebraska there are no pro sports.  That is it.  And it's been established.  It's a well‑established program from the former years as we just talked about, and I think their people are passionate about it.  They grew up young, rooting for the University of Nebraska, and have stayed the course.  So they're going to fill their stadium.  They're going to put now 92,000 in there.  It's going to be an exciting crowd.  I think they're football fans.  I think they're good people, just like we have good people.
So I don't know, but they certainly invite you in.  They invite you into the lions' den, there's no question.  Come on in.  There's plenty of room.

Q.  Looking back at last year's game, you talked a lot about the inches.  That was obviously one of those games.  I don't want to say necessarily this is a revenge game, but is this a redemption game in some ways for you guys from last year?
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, again, in terms of last year there are a lot of games where we lost the football game, but however you want to say it, we either ran out of time or we didn't lose our way.  We did not lose our way.  We lost the game, we didn't lose our way.  We came back with conviction the next week every single time.  We played with resiliency.
The football game last year was difficult to swallow the way it went down at the end, and I'll leave it at that.  There were some different things that went on in the game that were unconventional.  I'll leave it at that, okay.

Q.  The way they do challenge you defensively, how much better prepared do you think Connor is to not just react but also attack now than he maybe was a couple months ago?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think Connor grows with every experience, like any young quarterback, like any quarterback, period.  I think you grow with your experiences.  You become more confident, you become more at ease.  We played well on the road, and so I expect him to have a great football game.  He's going to have to create.  There's no question about that.  All quarterbacks are going to have to do that.  He's going to have to deliver, crunch time, all quarterbacks have to do that, and he's got to lead his football team.
I anticipate a great opportunity for him again to grow, and as we grow, we continue to hopefully get better.  We may take a step back; that's going to happen.  But you've got to play through adversity, and again, I think it's so important we handle success and we go about this opportunity in the right way and we have the right mindset as we go.

Q.  Taking a quick step away from Nebraska, I wanted to discuss locker room culture, just in light of what's going on with the Miami Dolphins right now.  I'm curious about the type of atmosphere you cultivate in your locker room and the way you dress players to be leaders in the locker room.
COACH DANTONIO:  Well, I probably have not followed that as close as everybody else.  It is my hope, and I guess you never really know, because the players are going to know more what's going on in the locker room than certainly‑‑ you would think the coaches would know, but we're not in there all the time, but I don't think there's any hazing that goes on here.  We try and allow our freshmen to grow within our football team, and we try and empower our football players and our team to be leaders.  I think we have great chemistry in our locker room.  I've said that from day one.  I think that's one of the reasons we've been successful.
Hopefully our players understand that and they cultivate that.  There's going to be players that have issues.  There's going to be players that play jokes on each other, but I hope that we have a good locker room.  That's my hope.  I feel like we do.

Q.  Just looking at the national statistics this week, is this team as close to the model that you want as far as a personality or an identity when we look at the success running the football, we see success on 3rd down, offensive conversion rate, defense stopping the run, great young kicker, great punter?  How close is this to your ideal model, and what are some of the finishes touches you want to see this team get?
COACH DANTONIO:  I think we are getting close.  I think we're playing very well defensively.  I think we're a much improved offense.  I think we're gaining momentum as we go into November offensively that's got to continue this week.  I think from a special teams perspective we've got good players running down, so we've got depth on this football team, and I think we've got two guys that are functioning at a high, high standard in Mike Sadler and Michael Geiger at their respective special teams positions.
But I guess you can always get better.  I do think that to put the finishes touches on things, you need to run the ball when you want to run it and be‑‑ not be behind the chains.
We're always, I think, chasing excellence, and there really is no finishing point.  That's just the way it sort of has become, I think, in college football and probably in most things in life.  Once you accomplish one goal you look to see how can you get better.  I look at our defense and I see some of the statistics where we're sitting at, it's like, okay, how can we get better?  Difficult in some respects, but you're still saying, well, we could have done this better in this particular game and we need to do a better job with this or this player could improve, those type of things.  I think that's what we're chasing.
In regards to where we're at right now, I guess what we've talked to our players about is this is a tremendous opportunity for us.  The reality is that people work their entire four and five years as a player to get to a point where they're in November, we have an opportunity to take steps towards getting‑‑ towards reaching your ultimate goals.  That doesn't always happen because there's so many different variables that come into play where you get hung up on this or you stub your toe on that or you have an injury there or things happen.  You don't succeed here.  But we're to a point where we go to this game and we have an opportunity to at least clinch the Legends Division title if we win this football game.  It doesn't mean we'd be the outright winners going into the championship game but we would at least clinch a co‑championship if we win.  That's something that's real, that our players can touch, and there should be no lack of motivation.  Does that mean we're going to come excited?  That doesn't guarantee it.  Got to peak on Saturday, and that's what we'll work towards.

Q.  Following up on that, I know‑‑ let's judge the season at the end kind of guy, but when you were 3‑0 nobody seemed to believe in you.  I know you live in your bubble, but even when you were 5‑1 I'm not sure there weren't a lot of doubters.  How satisfying is it now, especially after the last two games when now everybody seems to believe in you and you're on the doorstep of something bigger?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, my dad used to always say that criticism and praise is like chewing gum.  You chew on it for a while and then you spit it out, and I think that's what we do.  We're really not‑‑ we take stock of where we're at at the end of the season.  The bottom can fall out on you at any time if you don't take care of fundamentals, if you don't do the little things, if you're not emotionally ready.  Hopefully our players understand that.  That's why we continue to talk about handling success.  Earlier on we talked about handling adversity.  That's part of being a team, and that's why they judge you at the end of the season.  There's a lot of football teams that were in the top 10 at the beginning of the season that are nowhere to be found right now, and then there's some others that have driven their way up the rankings.  We'll find out where we're at at the end.
I'm satisfied because our players are playing well and I'm satisfied because we win.  The rankings and all that, you know, I really don't get involved in that too much.  I know that there's a buzz around because everybody is jumping on a bandwagon a little bit, and you have to handle success.  You can't get caught up in that.  That'll drive you down if you listen to it.  We'll try and rise above it.

Q.  I know you don't buy into a lot of the recruiting stars and things like that all the time, but since you got hired you guys have been sort of in the middle of the back compared to the rest of the Big 10 but you've won more games than anybody else since 2008.  What does that say about your staff's strategy in recruiting and ability to evaluate players out there that maybe other people aren't seeing?
A.I think in the recruiting process we're like a lot of people.  We try and take our time.  We try and slow the process down.  I think you've got to look at players.  Recruiting has become very accelerated, as I've said before, so what constitutes a four‑star player his junior year might not constitute a four‑star player his senior year.  There are always going to be players that come on in their senior year and play their best football, which is when they should be evaluated.  We've done a good job recognizing some of those guys, a Le'Veon Bell, a Kirk Cousins, Darqueze Dennard, some of these guys have become national players really and are playing at a higher level and will be playing at a higher level.
But I think the key to recruiting is recruit guys that can fit your program and fit your system, and then you take your system and you wrap that around the players and let them rise to the top within the system.
I think we're doing a good job in that respect, but as important as anything is recruiting the person, not the player, and I think we've gotten good people here that will compete and will raise their level of play and will work.  I also think our weight and conditioning program under Coach Mannie do a tremendous job in terms of taking those players as young men and developing them and getting them stronger and faster as they move through the program.
This is not a program now where you can come, I hate to say it, it might hurt us in recruiting, but very few freshmen can play because we're pretty established.  You have an opportunity to wait and play your second year, you're usually a lot better play.  Trae Waynes is an example.  He would have really struggled as a freshman.  We might have had to play him early on.  We didn't have to play him in 2011, and now he's a very good player for us, and I think that can be said about Shilique Calhoun, as well, and some other players.  I think that's the‑‑ some of the reason for the success.  Not all but some.

Q.  Looking back again to last year's Nebraska game, was there anything that you had to talk about Darqueze about?  Obviously he had the return for an interception called back and then the one play in the end zone.  Did he take that any more harder than anybody else?
COACH DANTONIO:  No.  Darqueze Dennard returned a pick for a touchdown and did an outstanding job throughout the entire night.  Our players can let it go.  There's some things you can control, some things you can't control.  We try and worry about the things we can control and adjust our thinking and adjust our techniques.
But playing out there on the edge, playing corner in this league or any other league is tough.  You're going to have some days where it goes well for you and there are going to be other days that there's a call against you or something happens that you don't have success.  So I think that's the key to being able to play out there, your confidence.  He never wavered.

Q.  Looking at Nebraska's sack numbers I think they're one of the top teams in the country in that capacity.  When is the last time you played a defense that plays this aggressive of a style, and how similar is it to yours?  You touched on that a little bit earlier, but is it the same kind of pressman, bringing an extra guy‑‑
COACH DANTONIO:  Spring practice.

Q.  Spring practice?
COACH DANTONIO:  Yeah, they're bringing pressure a lot and they're going to be up there.  There's a lot of similarities in what they do.  There is a lot of differences in how they do it, but the end result becomes similar in some respects, in many respects.

Q.  Does it affect your play calling?
COACH DANTONIO:  Pressure usually does.  Yeah, pressure will affect your play calling.

Q.  You talked about two years ago, it sounds like you felt like your team was overwhelmed, I guess, by the crowd‑‑
COACH DANTONIO:  No, by the environment.  Not really by the crowd, because the crowd is‑‑ like I said, come on in.  We didn't play up to our abilities.  Credit the University of Nebraska for that.  We just didn't play as well as we had been playing, and it was just different.  It was just a different feeling that our players got, and I heard it from a lot of different guys after we left.  That was just different.
We've played in big crowds before.  We've played in tough environments.  But I really don't know what it is, but we've been there before, we've established it, and we've got to just make sure we're ourselves when we go, and we'll do that.  But the crowd is a great crowd.

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