The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday’s press conference courtesy of Michigan State University athletics:
COACH DANTONIO: First off, just to sort of get us started, obviously we’re not where we thought we would be at the beginning of the season. Throughout this process, though, I think that, again, we got to continue to stay vigilant in what we’re trying to do here. We are playing a lot of young players, going through some injuries, different things of that sort.
So my basic viewpoint on things is we got to stay accountable, stay accountable as a team, stay accountable to each other, got to continue to be upbeat and optimistic in terms of the next phase, the next part of the program, the next game, the next week, whatever situation we’re going through, stay upbeat with that. Then we’ve got to continue to be competitive, very competitive in everything that we try and do. Continue to try and work through this situation as we go forward, we go to Illinois this weekend for a 12 Noon game and we’ll be ready to play.
So I’ll take some questions.
Q. What do you want to see out of the defense in the next four weeks through this month? What do you still hope they can become this year?
COACH DANTONIO: The first thing you want to do is you want to see good fundamentals. I mean, really that’s what you want to see. Fundamentals win football games. You continue coaching it. We’ve got young guys playing. I look at statistically, Josh King has played 111 plays. If you can take yourself back, some of us can, take yourself back to college as a true freshman in your first semester and think about yourself for a second and say, Okay, now, let’s go out in front of 80,000 people and play, let’s play with a high motor, understand what to do, execute at a very high level, play against a high-level, competitive football team. You can sort of sit there and think, `Am I really going to be ready for this?’
Auston Robertson played 46 plays. I think (Mike) Panasiuk has played 95 plays. Got some other players who played a lot of plays up front at various different places. I think Chris Frey might be the guy with the most reps, maybe 580 reps.
What I would like to see is good fundamentals. We are coaching fundamentally, as we always have. We’ve got to be able to take that to the field in a very chaotic situation, whether it’s a no-huddle offense, whether it’s a third-and-two situation or a goal line situation or whatever it is. But you got to be able to take that and apply that at game time. That’s easier said than done.
Q. You talked about accountability and competitiveness. Any talk at this point about the possibility of winning four straight and making a bowl game or do you keep it narrow?
COACH DANTONIO: I think our focus right now is one focus: let’s get ourselves ready to play. Every week we’ve come ready to play. I don’t think there’s one week where we’ve come out and been flat. We played, we’ve been ahead. We have to maintain that energy, that enthusiasm, and cannot go this way when something negative happens to us. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. I’ve said it for six weeks. It’s going to happen in life, but you got to maintain and be vigilant. I don’t know any other way to say it. That’s how I’m built. That’s how we’re going to be built here. We’re going to push through these things.
There’s a lot of people across the country or in professional sports or in college sports, or high school sports that are not having success. They’ve got to continue to push through. That’s my message to everybody out there: continue to try to refine it, critique it, fix it. If you can’t fix it, change it. Things of that nature.
Q. I know we talked over the weekend about the quarterback situation. Two guys listed right now. Do you envision a situation with three?
COACH DANTONIO: No, not with three, not right now.
Q. With those two guys (Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry), they both have been banged up, how critical for them is it to get these reps over the last few games, especially Damion coming back next year?
COACH DANTONIO: It’s very important for them to get game reps, that’s the most important, but practice reps as well. Got to remain healthy. Again, you’re in a Catch-22 situation in terms of how you practice. Have to remain healthy. Our plans are not to take the redshirt off of Messiah deWeaver. You never know what’s going to happen. As I said earlier, Colar Kuhns is a non-scholarship guy, but he’s been in our system and knows our system. There’s a possibility of him as well. We’ll see how it all shakes out based on practice this week, but we’re going to try to win a football game. That’s our focus. That’s where we’re at right now. After that we’re going to try to win another one. We’re going to finish this thing.
Q. Are you at a point where you’re done taking redshirts off guys unless it’s an absolute `don’t-have-a-choice situation?’ If it comes down to the last couple games, you think a guy might be able to do something, but you’re not sure, would you do that or not?
COACH DANTONIO: Never say never because you don’t know what’s the next thing we’re going to have to deal with, but at this point it’s highly unlikely that we would take a redshirt off a guy. I think it’s highly unlikely. We’ll try not to, let’s put it that way, with four games left, maybe five. We’ll see.
Q. You talked a little bit about after the game how Donnie Corley is playing some defensive back now. You’ve had Justin Layne make that switch. Is it easier for freshmen to make that switch because they really don’t know everything they would have needed to know on the offensive side?
COACH DANTONIO: No, both those guys played corner in high school, that’s their level of experience. Both those guys are great athletes, they have size to them, they can change direction, they have some toughness. They’ve got excellent ball skills, deep ball judgment, and they can run.
So we had some injuries. We had some different things going on. We tried Justin Layne in there. Then this past
week I felt like Donnie Corley, we’ve been taking all along we would give him the opportunity to play on this side of the ball. That was a game that that could be warranted in. We’ve got to get him practice time, it’s difficult to get him practice time on both sides of the ball. You struggle with that during the season. It’s been done before. We’ve done it before. So we’re working towards it, but, you know, he’s got to be able to play fundamentally sound out there as well. There’s different coverages. Again, as I go back and say, okay, you’re a freshman, regardless of your level of ability you’re still a freshman and there’s a lot of things going on out there in terms of coverages changing based on sets, motions, things of that nature, squeeze sets, bunched-up sets, things of that nature, how to play those. You learn a little bit, on-the-job training a little bit, but he did some good things. We’ll keep working him. He played eight plays on defense.
Q. As solid as your foundation has been, nothing divides a team like losing. There’s only so much you can do as a coach. How do you keep that from filtering in or do you have to rely on your soldiers to keep that from happening?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, you hit on exactly the right word, `soldiers.’ We need soldiers that keep marching. We’ve always had good chemistry here. That will be maintained. Structure will be maintained. Order will be maintained. A competitive environment will be maintained.
Everybody has future goals, whether that’s a freshman, what he’s trying to accomplish, getting to that next step in his journey here as a football player, or whether that’s a senior outgoing with hopes of playing at the next level, or whether it’s a senior moving into his last month and a half of football.
All of us have future goals. We need to keep our eye on those goals and maintain the focus we have in order to accomplish those goals. If you don’t concentrate on the present, your future goals are going to fade away on you, too. That’s a basis for all of us. We’ll continue to focus on that.
Q. Is it any different trying to evaluate all the young guys you’re playing when things aren’t going so well as opposed to on a winning streak?
COACH DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, I guess when you’re winning, you’re not playing probably as many freshmen. Usually when you’re winning, you’re not having injuries. Things just sort of roll, you know, but I think it’s harder to evaluate them in these type of situations, certainly, because you’re grabbing people and putting them in there maybe before they’re quite ready. So, again, it’s a little bit on-the-job training.
We didn’t anticipate taking the redshirt off of Joe Bachie, but with the injuries that have occurred, we had to. So we did it. I think he’ll be a better player for it. But I think he’ll be a very, very good player for us. It was not the plan to
take that redshirt off of him.
Q. Guys like Joe who have had the redshirt taken off but maybe haven’t played as many snaps as Josh King, Auston Robertson, do you have to make an effort to play them more to justify their redshirt?
COACH DANTONIO: He’s playing on special teams, showing up on the special teams, that’s number one. He did play last week as well on the field, that’s number two.
But ultimately the bottom line is you got to play well enough to win. Our goal is to win. We’re not going to say, Well, let’s play these guys, worry about winning later. Our goal is still to win.
Q. Looking back at the offensive line performance, you were able to run the ball, especially late. What is the difference that’s allowed them to I guess put forth the run blocking they’ve had these past few weeks?
COACH DANTONIO: I think LJ (Scott) has been good, first of all. I think Holmes has had some moments as well along the way. I think our blocking, in-line blocking, has been solid. We’re creating creases. On the edge, our tight ends, as well and our fullbacks, I think Prescott Line is a very underrated guy. He gets on people. If you watch the film, he gets on people and creates a dent. He’s been very solid.
Q. I was going to ask you about LJ. Do you see a little difference in him the last few weeks, running harder, seeing things better, pass blocking, how is he progressing?
COACH DANTONIO: As a pass blocker, all of those guys need to do a better job. When they had to block a defensive lineman this week, they needed to be better, and that created pressure. When the pressure dictated they had to take care of a defensive end, they needed to be more effective, with the linebackers, they seem to be okay picking the blitz up when they came, but as a running back, I mean, he’s doing the things that we always thought he would be doing. I think he’s in sync right now. I guess he ran the ball 22 times. (Gerald) Holmes ran it six times. I think he’s doing a nice job. I think he’s ready to go. We’ll see how he goes this week. Hopefully he’s right in the groove.
Q. With Donnie Corley, defense, offense, that balance moving forward in his career, have you begun
to assess that in do you see him playing both?
COACH DANTONIO: I really see him being a lot like Tony Lippett in a lot of ways, understanding everything defensively to be to put him in there when we need him, but I think he’s got a big upside as a wide receiver, can make a lot of plays.
So I think his home is at wide receiver, and then he has to transition to corner as we go, but I think there will be
opportunities to do that for him. Like I said, when I was at Ohio State, the most Chris Gamble ever played was 113 plays one game. He was over a hundred six games in a row. So it can be done. Lippett has played a lot of plays in the past, too. Now he’s starting in the NFL as a corner in his second year. So it can be done.
I think there’s an upside to it. Whether Layne stays over there or not will depend on how others come on both sides of the ball, but we’re going to get our best guys playing. That’s my goal and my challenge all the time, is get your best players playing, allow them to have opportunities that allow them to flourish.
Q. With what the defense was able to do in the second half against Michigan, the second straight week of the offensive line having that sort of push, is there a measure of confidence that’s been gained? Some of us, I thought it was going to be a blow-out, for example. The way you look at the rest of the month, Ohio State, is there a little confidence for the rest of the month in those two spots?
COACH DANTONIO: I’ll say it again. I think we’ve had an opportunity to win every single game we’ve played. We’ve been in every game we’ve played. So there’s expectations. I’m not going into a game saying, `I don’t think we’ve got a chance to win that game.’
I thought we had a chance to win against U of M this last week. We didn’t. They have a good football team. We needed to be error-free as I said the other day, and we weren’t.
As far as how we play defensively, I thought we played better, but we gave up a big third down play, and we gave up a couple big chunk plays. Especially disappointing coming off the two yard line. If we can keep them down there, we’re right back at them from the 50 on in if we can keep them down there.
We have to continue to play more fundamentally sound and make more plays. That’s the nature of it. When you look at our football teams in the last three years previous, we’re plus-43 turnover margin, plus-43. That is a lot of turnovers, beyond what an opponent gets from us.
When you look at our sack ratio or sack numbers, the last three previous years — last year we had 37, 116 in three years. So the production in sacks is not there, we’re at 11 right now. So we’ve got to get that. We have to get a better pass-rush. We have to play better in taking the ball away from teams. I don’t think we’ve given the ball a lot to teams. We’ve not had a lot of turnovers, but we’ve not gotten them.
You work on them, try to pull the ball out in practice. You do all kinds of different drills. Sometimes it just rains. Sometimes there’s a drought. Sometimes it’s just the way it rolls, but we’ve not gotten the turnovers. For the last three previous years, we’ve led the Big Ten in the turnover ratio department. So you can basically say Michigan State with the plus-43 was number one in the Big Ten three consecutive years. That hasn’t happened this year. You see the result of that.
Last year we were 6-1 in games decided by one or less scores. Right now that’s not occurring. Got to make plays down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
There’s answers to all of our problems. What we have to do is identify the answers to the questions and then change, get back to what we were doing. A lot of it, some of it, is experience. Even at our quarterback position, we lost a guy that was quarterback for three years. We know we have a fifth-year senior who knows our system. He’s in a lot of different situations for the first time. Damion Terry and certainly Brian Lewerke the same.
The quarterback position is a little bit in flux there, I would say. When the quarterback situation is in flux whether due to injury or production, you know, there’s going to be inconsistency.
You can go into every position like that, but in these times of turmoil, I guess we need to recollect ourselves and at this point to push forward and understand it will come out the other side.
As long as we stay optimistic, vigilant, keep coaching, be optimistic, be accountable, we come out the other side, and that’s my job.
Q. How challenging is it for you to stay focused and keep moving forward with this team, not necessarily look back and second guess yourself?
COACH DANTONIO: You’re going to second guess yourself. Every time you watch the film, you’re going to second guess yourself, but that’s human nature. Hindsight is 20/20.
I can second guess myself, have some do-overs, make a do-over list. Some people might do that, but at the end of it you have to deal with what’s gone down. Sometimes we’ve had to deal with good things, and we’ve been the benefit of some good things. You say, `Hey, fooled them again, we won.’ Maybe we shouldn’t have won, but we won. Right now we have to deal with the other way, but how am I handling it?
Q. You and the team, moving forward to the final four games.
COACH DANTONIO: As I opened this thing, we’ve had energy every game. If we come out without energy, if we come out just not doing anything, I would assume that things aren’t going well, but I don’t know how many different series we’ve gone down the field and driven the length of the field and scored on the first series, or we jump out 14-0 against Northwestern, whatever it is.
We come out, we have good practices, we remain together. I come to this press conference every week, okay? So keep moving.
Q. Can you get more out of Malik McDowell? I only ask not to single him out but because he’s a preseason All-American and hasn’t been as visible as many thought.
COACH DANTONIO: I think all of us can do better. I think all of us can do better. I’m never going to point fingers at anybody and say, `This is this guy’s fault or this is that guy’s fault.’
Collectively we need to be accountable. We can all do better. I can do better. We can make better calls. We can play better fundamentally, up front, in the back end, at linebacker, wherever it’s at.
Q. I remember you standing on top of the mountain in Pasadena and a couple times in Dallas.
COACH DANTONIO: I saw that picture coming in. You guys ought to look at that going out.
Q. You said, `It’s not always going to be like this.’ Were you ever prepared for this six-week nightmare?
COACH DANTONIO: No. No, I was never prepared for it, but does doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I don’t think you prepare for that. My goals are not to be there. I think what I have experienced in my lifetime as a person and in my lifetime as a coach prepares you for these times. You better be at your best when these times occur. That’s what I’m going to continually try and do. I’m not going to try, I’m going to be at my best. I’m going to answer questions straight up, try not to dodge things. I’m going to try and be there for our football team, for our players.
So that’s what I think you have to do. Nothing prepares you for the downsides of life, but you go through them, and hopefully it strengthens you.
When I was a Youngstown State, we were 1-9, won our last game. Won numerous national championships after that.
Q. You’ve been there here, as well, fighting for a bowl game. What kind of lessons do you take from those couple years where you had to fight for the bowl game and keep those guys sharp enough to know they could still get to the postseason? How critical is the postseason with so many young players, having that practice time?
COACH DANTONIO: Well, the postseason is critical because it’s just an opportunity to move forward, pulls you out of something.
We’re one game at a time to get there. I recognize that. That’s our focus. Our one focus has to be that.
Q. How important is it for the young guys to get reps?
COACH DANTONIO: It takes 10,000 hours to be an expert. That’s what I feel, okay? When I say Josh King has played 111 plays, he’s probably had, you know, a thousand in camp maybe, let’s say, over a period of practices and camp, but he’s not there yet. Or somebody else. I just threw out his name. They’re not there yet.
When you look at Michigan, they got, what is it, 19 out of the 22 guys that started the game were seniors. In 2013, it was a little bit different, but that’s how players grow up. That’s how players get fundamentally sound, by doing things over and over and over. That’s what has to happen.
Their attitude is good. As long as they continue to press forward, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to be very good players. They’re athletic and they have talent, but it’s chaotic on the field right now at times for them.
Q. Regarding the hit Chris Frey took on Saturday. Did you raise that with the Big Ten at all as to why that wasn’t targeting?
COACH DANTONIO: Yes. I think that would be the Big Ten’s position to share that, not mine.
Q. On Sunday, you said that you assumed he went through the protocol before he got back in.
COACH DANTONIO: I know he went through the protocol because everybody always does. (MSU Team Physician) Dr. (David) Kaufman is a leading neurologist on our sidelines. He’s not up in a box. He’s on our sidelines. Our players who have any evidence of a concussion or take any big hit, they immediately see him. They have baseline tests they must go through based on their past histories and things of that nature. They’ve gone through the protocol.
I was not even aware that he had taken a hit in the head until it was shown to me at halftime, when it was shown
to me. Real quick.
The protocol was met by our trainers and by our doctors. He showed no symptoms of anything, and still doesn’t. He has a sore neck, but he’s been cleared and fine.