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EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday at the Spartan Club in Spartan Stadium. Dantonio recapped the Central Michigan game and previewed this Saturday's matchup against Ohio State.
The Spartans (3-1) and Buckeyes (3-1) will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET in Ohio Stadium on Saturday. The game is being televised on ABC (reverse mirror on ESPN in outer markets).
"I think the Big Ten season tends to define you," said Dantonio. "I know we can win in (Spartan) Stadium. We've got to win on the road in order for this football season to be a success ultimately, total success, what everybody wants. We've got to go and win on the road. That's just a fact. This is the next one up, and we'll be motivated."
In this week's national polls, the Spartans were ranked 25th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and are receiving votes in The Associated Press Poll.
The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday's press conference:
COACH DANTONIO: Just to finish up CMU a little bit, it finishes our out of conference games and now we move into the conference. We're 3 and 1 at this point. Next thing up is a road game at Ohio State, first conference game...
But our goals are in front of us, and that's what the main thing is as we move forward. You look at OSU right now, Luke Fickell is a very close friend of mine and our families. I think he's doing an outstanding job. He was thrown into a very tough situation I feel, and he's responded. He's an alum there, he's played there, he's coached there. I think he's what Ohio State needs, and I just want to publicly say that right now.
As far as OSU's defense, when you look at them defensively right now they really return two starters at this point, Nate Williams may
or may not be in or out, we don't really know. (Andrew) Sweat and John Simon are both outstanding football players, but they return a lot of players who have played a lot for them this past year, so even though they may not have started, they've seen a lot of action.
They're a very active defense. If you look at them after four games statistically they're up in the top of the conference almost in every category, as well. Quick, active, very sound in what they do, good tacklers on the perimeter, secondary covers very well, and pretty much you can go through their defensive roster and their offensive roster and it's guys that we know. It's guys we've tried to recruit or were active in the recruiting process or know about them because they were national recruits or something of that sort.
Good football team on the defensive side of the ball. Jim Heacock is the coordinator there and does an outstanding job.
Offensively when you look at them right now, again, not a lot of starters back when you look at them. (Zach) Boren is back, (J.B.) Shugarts and (Mike) Brewster, obviously they're going to get their other guys back after this football game, but (Jake) Stoneburner obviously has played a lot of football as some other guys have, as well.
But I think the big story right now is Braxton Miller, a guy who's carried the ball 30 times in three games. Pretty much the last game was his first full time start so he's running the ball as much as some of their tailbacks really are.
If you take (Jordan) Hall, who's been in two games thus far and has carried the ball one more time than he has, gives you a little bit of an indication how much he runs the football as well as passes it, and he is a guy that can make you miss in space and you've got to contain the quarterback in this football game. They're going to run the football.
Jim Bollman is the offensive coordinator, again, an excellent football coach. Very impressed with their offensive line, active, very athletic. Tight ends, they have a couple of them, Reid Fragel from Michigan here, big, physical type guy, and then Stoneburner is a guy that's a little bit more of a mismatch guy. Wide receivers are young on the edge, both specialists are back. We're looking forward to a great football game down there.
This week decided to close practice obviously but also close the interview process for the players. I know that's something that we haven't done here. I guess I can just ask you to be patient with that. I just feel like our players need to focus. I feel like I don't want them in a compromising situation this week. We've got a lot of players from Ohio, we've got guys with pressure on them, and they don't need the additional pressure. They need to get with their teammates and we need to focus on the task at hand, and this is an important game for us, and I just felt like that was the best. So bear with me.
Honorary captain, hopefully we've got a call into George Saimes, and that will be a great captain for us. I know he's coming to the football game, and hopefully he'll be able to get that done and be down there on Friday night possibly. With that, I'll just take some questions and then we'll move forward.
Q. Micajah (Reynolds) appeared to play very, very well (at left tackle). How close was that with Dan because Dan seemed to struggle. How close was that decision to keep Dan as the one?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think it's a close decision. They're both going to play. I think Micajah did play well, especially when you look and say, well, he was just brought back on the offensive line last Tuesday. So there were some very positive things there. But from a conditioning perspective, he needs to probably be a little bit better conditioned to play the entire game.
I think Dan France is coming. Again, he's played four games now. We're going to see what he does this next game. But he needs to be a good football player for us. He knows what to do. He's got toughness. He's very athletic and he's big. He just needs to keep his composure as a football player, not his composure as a person, (but as a football player). When you're playing in that type of environment, this environment (home), whatever the environment we play in, there's a lot going on out there for him, so he needs to just stay composed as a football player, and I think he's going to grow into that.
But I was impressed with Micajah and his play. Physical, big, he's athletic, and we're going to continue to make strides with him hopefully.
Q. Is there any special emphasis on special teams this week given their continued problems?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, we need to continue to...I think when you look around the country or look around at the teams we're playing, everybody has had an incident with special teams, so we need to shore up ours. The thing that is encouraging is when we've had something negative happen to us it's because of a mental blow pretty much. It was the safety running down on the kickoff team against Notre Dame where he just got sucked up in there. He was a young player. That was the first time any kickoff had busted out against us, and he had to track it, and then this past week, the count went wrong in the punt protection, and it was just inexperience.
We'll get it fixed, we'll continue to work on it, and all eyes are on those things as the games continue on. Our coaching will be there, and I think we'll continue to emphasize it and hopefully we need to get better. We can't have a slip up like that down in Columbus.
Q. Kirk missed some throws on Saturday that he normally makes, and he took some big hits in the pocket, too. Are those related at all, and do you think maybe it was just one kind of rare day where he wasn't at his best?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think if you look at us statistically first of all and you look at the body of work that Kirk Cousins has had, it's been excellent, completing almost 70 percent of his passes. We've thrown for (947) yards in four games, so we're throwing the ball. When you go out on the football field, sometimes - a lot of things going on out there, a lot of vision, a lot of things crossing your face, and there's nobody who's perfect. But I think he's had an excellent fall season thus far, and again, as we move into these next games, it starts to define you. These games will start to define you. These Big Ten games will define a player.
I don't see that there's a problem there or an incidence as far as him taking hits. That's why we have to run the ball a little bit more effectively. We have to protect our quarterback; that'll give him the time to throw the football. If we do that, if we can protect our quarterback, good things are going to happen. There's no doubt in my mind that that is the case. He's got too much experience, too many good throws, he's got a great arm, all the things he needs to have.
Q. In your program here you've knocked off a lot of notches, a lot of firsts. This is one that has eluded you because I think it's been 12 years since Michigan State has beaten Ohio State. Beyond the significance of the opener and this game, is there added program importance to finally beat them?
COACH DANTONIO: I was asked that yesterday, as well. First of all, you look at 2011, and I think it's very important that we go down there with a mindset and win and do all the things we have to do for 2011 for this football season. Obviously every game is like that. But when you look at the program in general and you look at the future of the program, this is the only football team that we have not beaten in this conference in the four years that we've been here thus far. So it goes to say, I mean, it's one thing that we haven't gotten done yet, so from a program standpoint it is important. You have to point toward those things and say, hey, we can beat anybody in this conference, and we can measure up against anybody in this conference. And that's been the goal here since we've come is to be able to measure up against anybody in this conference at any time. It doesn't mean we're going to win. It doesn't mean that. But to measure up and play competitively with every single team.
The '07 game down there, we got back into contention at the end because of a couple turnovers that we scored on; the '08 game, a lot of high expectations and too many turnovers and the quarterback got hit too often. So we've got to eliminate those things. We've got to protect our quarterback and allow him the time to make the throws, and given the time, he'll make the throws. That's the MO going down there. But again, like I said, when you go on the road you've got to defend. That was one of the things I said a couple weeks ago, but in that defend adjective or whatever, adverb, whatever it is, probably the most one of the most important aspects is protect your quarterback, so that has to happen.
Q. Beyond that, how personal is this game for you?
COACH DANTONIO: I think every game is personal, but you know, I grew up down there, so it's got a little added incentive. I used to be there, so it's got added incentive. You want to go back, you want to play well, you want to do the things that have to be done to try and make a statement. But this is about our football team. But I think if you're from Ohio, and we have 24 players who are from Ohio on our roster, it's a little extra going back home to play.
Q. I know a couple weeks ago you were looking for your team to come up with an identity. After the last couple weeks do you know where your team is at heading into this Big Ten season?
COACH DANTONIO: I think, again, Big Ten season tends to define you. I think we've gone away and didn't play our best football. We've played well I'd say for the most part at home, and players are starting to sort of edge their way into who's playing where and what positions and those type of things as we move forward, whether it's Micajah Reynolds or Dan France or whoever it is. Do we have an identity yet? I guess you guys would know maybe earlier than I would sometimes. I think we've got toughness, I think we've got mental toughness, and I think we'll play hard. But do we have an identity yet? Tough for me to say at this point.
I know we can win in this (Spartan) stadium. We've got to win on the road in order for this football season to be a success ultimately, total success, what everybody wants. We've got to go and win on the road. That's just a fact. This is the next one up, and we'll be motivated.
Q. How do the new divisions affect the way you guys view the Big Ten season as a whole?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think you certainly put a higher importance on the Big Ten games, and then I guess because there's two divisions now, I guess you would say that the most important thing to do is to win in your division because those games, when it comes to ties, those head to head games are going to mean more, and then when you play across obviously a Big Ten game is going to mean a lot, too. But I think the interdivisional games probably mean more if you're tied, because the head to head competition I think is the first tiebreaker.
Q. What's your evaluation of the secondary so far? Are they playing as well as the numbers suggest?
COACH DANTONIO: I think the secondary is playing very well. We've got a number of players who can play back there, so we're functional, we're playing younger players. Kurtis Drummond has been a positive. (He) made one mistake in the Notre Dame game, but other than that playing very well.
The thing that's impressed me about our secondary right now is we've got guys with ball judgment now, guys that are going to catch the ball and it's going to stick to their hands if it comes near them, and because of that you're seeing more interceptions, Isaiah with two of them, Kurtis with two of them. I guess Trenton has one, and Max Bullough is involved in that, but I think our secondary is playing pretty well.
If you look at us, statistically playing well, but again, I really can't put much stock - you can put some stock in those things, but you evaluate a program and you evaluate what's going on statistically more toward the end of the year, I think, than looking at the front part of the year where you're not playing the conference games. I think it's more important to look at how you're playing in the conference.
Q. (Bennie) Fowler and (Tyler) Hoover I noticed aren't on the depth chart. Have their injuries become more long term than originally expected?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, Bennie may go, may not go. It's sort of been like that for the last two weeks. If he gets foot pain, then we back him off. He's probably practiced one time a week the last couple weeks. So if the foot pain is gone, then he's going to go. But it's really a day to day thing with him.
You know, probably could have - if it would have been an away game last week, we probably would have traveled him. But if he were to play - I can't say. I really don't know.
And with Tyler we have to allow the fracture to heal. He's got a fractured rib. We have to allow that to heal, so that may be a little bit more long term, but possibly back for the Michigan game, possibly.
Q. Getting back to the identity and the national rankings of the defense, is that something you can try to get the guys to rally around, to say, hey, we are No. 1 in the nation (in total defense)? It's early, but let's try to stay there?
COACH DANTONIO: I think it's something that you can create a confidence with. You can sit there and say, okay, this is what we've done thus far in four games, okay, let's move to the fifth game and see if we can continue doing it. It should give our players a sense of confidence, just like when we play well offensively or throw the ball very effectively, it's going to give everybody confidence. If we run the football, it's going to give everybody confidence; if we're going to protect the quarterback, confidence; if we're able to kick field goals like last year, 14 out of 15, confidence. When you do things well there's a confidence factor and that settles you in a little bit, relaxes you somewhat and allows you to play at a higher tempo. That's what we're trying to do.
But thus far we've played well on defense. But in the end it's the points you give up. We can't forget about points you give up is the ultimate, which we're doing well in that, too.
Q. You explained why you're not letting players talk, but you've played Ohio State every year. You've always had players from Ohio. Is there a reason you care to outline why you're being extra careful this year?
COACH DANTONIO: I just think that sometimes when players get interviewed they get compromised a little bit, and maybe they say something that they maybe shouldn't say, and then they get a little anxiety. I just felt like this week at this time, our football team needs to be with each other, they need to focus on what they have to do, and they need to step away from that aspect of it. I just feel like they have to do that this week.
I think there's pressure on a lot of points in our program. I think our quarterback gets asked a lot of questions. (He's) constantly, constantly talking to the media, and he needs to play well and he needs to get away from that. He needs to relax. I think our running backs and just certain - there's a lot of segments and facets of our team that are going to get questions, whether it's questions about the last game or questions about the next game, and I just feel like right now the best thing for our football team is to just step back away from that.
We've got an off week next week. There will be plenty of time to interview people either post Ohio State or pre Michigan, and I've never tried to deny access here from our players. I just haven't done that. But I do feel like this time is the time that we have to ask for that. I'm not trying to be difficult, but it's just what I feel is best right now for our football team. It maybe allows them to go to another place a little bit and relax a little bit, not have to deal with it. One story usually prompts another story.
Q. On the receivers, Keshawn (Martin) looked like he got banged up a little bit, too, and with Bennie uncertain, is Tony Lippett drifting to that side of the ball as a guy you want to get more involved?
COACH DANTONIO: Tony played 38 plays on offense and 10 on defense on Saturday, so he played on both sides of the ball. Because of Bennie Fowler's injury, I felt like he needs to be a guy that has to move in that direction, and in order for a guy to get better, especially when he's a young player, he has to play on game day on one side or the other, so what we say is use him or lose him on either side of the ball because I do think he's a talented player, but he's got to gain confidence as he plays. Got his hands on the ball out there receiving the ball, got his hands on the ball twice as a defender and could have come up with interceptions either time. The receiver makes a good play on one of them.
So he's got to play some, but the reality is that he's playing probably over on offense because of Bennie Fowler's injury. (Brad) Sonntag and C.D. Rucker are two senior wide receivers. I just can't have five senior wide receivers as our first five receivers. We just can't do it, because it doesn't allow for the future to be expressed. So we have to get a younger player in there to play him. Don't want to take the red shirt off of A.J. (Troup). I think Tony is talented. I think Tony may play certainly more receiver in the spring than he is defensive back because of the need, so that was the decision we had to make. So we forced the issue a little bit this last week.
Now, whether he remains there or not, it will depend on how Fowler comes, but I think Tony is an excellent football player, and I think he's a big play receiver. But Sonntag played well, too, when he got in there. He made some plays.
Keshawn will practice today, so we anticipate him playing. He'll practice today.
Q. With Todd Anderson switching to fullback, how quickly did you recognize that you had a guy who could start and be a good starter at the position, and then have you sort of seen him continue to grow comfortable with his role each week?
COACH DANTONIO: He is getting more comfortable. I think we moved him in - I can't remember if it was bowl practice or whether it was in the spring, but after about one or two days, we made a bunch of moves in bowl practice, that's what we did, and it came back that he can play that position. He's got to learn it. So I can't remember whether we started him in the spring doing it or whether we came back and continued to work him in the bowl practices.
But he's 265 pounds, he's tough, he's physical, he catches the ball well. He can do a lot of different things for us, and I think he's a very good player. We've had a knack of guys being fifth year seniors playing fullback for us and being successful or being main contributors, and I think that continues.
Q. Can you talk about the difficulty of defending a mobile quarterback? You have a stretch here where you're going to be facing a couple.
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, you can have it all drawn up exactly right, but they can make a play, and that's the unknown factor. You've got to make sure that if you have contain, you are a contain player. You've got to make sure that you're facing up the quarterback and not turning your back on the quarterback as the pass play develops, because there's a good chance he may pull it down and scramble and you may have to come toward the line of scrimmage.
But that's a team thing. We've got to eliminate the run, the quarterback scramble for big yardage, and we've got to force him into making mistakes. I think that's a natural progression with a quarterback who scrambles around. Sometimes they're not very patient; the younger they are, the less patient they are, so the quicker they go.
Q. Have you seen progress at all with, I guess, the continuity of the offense or getting in some kind of flow? It seems like they've had a couple good drives but they really haven't had a good full quarter yet.
COACH DANTONIO: I think that because of our offensive line, we're mixing and matching things. We've got to find our rhythm there. That's what we tried to do last week a little bit, find our rhythm. I thought we did better last week. But we'll keep working it until there is a rhythm there. I don't think that we can be a one-dimensional football team. I just don't think that we can do that. There's too many things that go on from a pass perspective, and as I said last week, we have good players at tailback that need to get touches. They need to have touches from the tailback position. They need to be able to run through people. That speaks to your physicalness and toughness as a football team, and we need to have that. So we'll continue to work toward that.
But in the end we've got to move the football, and now we play for keeps. Not that we weren't before, but now it's even more important. So we've got to do what we've got to do to move that football. But the best is yet to come. That's what I'll say.
Q. Can you compare Ohio State's defense to Notre Dame's in any way?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, I think they're two different type of defenses. Notre Dame is a little bit more of a 3 4 defense, Ohio State is more of a 4 3 defense. They're going to take John Simon and move him around. He'll play defensive end on the open side, defensive end on the tight end side, he will play at the nose tackle. He's a very good player, active. Johnathan Hankins is a very good player. He's from Michigan, and obviously that's something we've got to deal with.
Their defense and Notre Dame's defense both have active linebackers. I think their secondary at Ohio State is more of a cover - they're quick, they're good tacklers, but they're a little bit more cover - they're not as big maybe as Notre Dame's safeties. But there are some similarities maybe in the type of players that they have. Different defenses, though, schematically.
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