EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his weekly press conference Tuesday inside the Izzo Family Media Center at the Spartan Stadium North End Zone Complex to preview this week’s game at No. 8 Penn State.
Michigan State will conclude the 2016 season against the Nittany Lions on Saturday, Nov. 26 at 3:36 p.m. in Beaver Stadium. The Spartans (3-8, 1-7 B1G) battled second-ranked Ohio State on Senior Day last weekend in Spartan Stadium, but ultimately fell to the Buckeyes, 17-16. PSU (9-2, 7-1 B1G) is still in the hunt for the Big Ten East Division title after beating Rutgers last Saturday, 39-0. The Nittany Lions are in a three-way tie for first in the division, along with Michigan and Ohio State. Saturday’s game will be broadcast on ESPN and WatchESPN.
Saturday’s game marks the 31st meeting between Michigan State and Penn State, with the Spartans holding a slim edge in the series, 15-14-1, following their 55-16 win in East Lansing last season. The Spartans are looking for their fourth consecutive victory over the Nittany Lions for the first time since winning a series-best five straight (1949, 1951, 1952, 1965, 1966).
In addition to last season’s win, which clinched the Big Ten East Division title, MSU defeated Penn State in Beaver Stadium in 2014, 34-10, and clinched a share of the Big Ten Championship in 2010 at Penn State with a 28-22 victory.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio is 4-2 against Penn State while coaching the Spartans, including a 2-1 record in Beaver Stadium. The Spartans are looking to win three straight in Beaver Stadium for the first time in school history.
The following is a complete transcript from Tuesday’s press conference courtesy of Michigan State University athletics and ASAP Sports:
Mark Dantonio: I guess I would say the challenge continues. I thought we played hard against Ohio State, came up a little bit short. I look back and, you know, you get into getting ready to play Penn State, you look back at scouting reports and these different things. Last year we were No. 5 ranked in the country when we went into this football game and playing for a Big Ten Championship.
This year the situation has been reversed a little bit. Penn State is playing very well, they’re a 9-2 football team playing for an opportunity to be part of a championship, a Big Ten Championship, East Division. They should be congratulated for that. Our goals are to finish much like we’ve always tried to do, complete a circle, finish with a “W”.
I think that makes a big difference in every football season. How you end that season really sets you up or plateaus you, or whatever the case. I think last year even though we had gone as far as 12-1 playing in that playoff game, I think it stung when we didn’t win, as opposed to the four years previously when we won our bowl games.
Certainly our older players have a future in front of them, some in football, some not, and our younger players have a future in front of them, so it propels them into the future. It’s our last football game, so we want to end on a positive note.
With that being said, I think Penn State, again, is doing a nice job. Offensively the quarterback is playing well, great tailback in Barkley, they play a couple of other guys, but he’s done an outstanding job. Tight end very productive, wide receivers, good.
Defensive side of the ball, they’ve got some guys hurt throughout the season, up and down a little bit in that area, but I think they’ve got most of their guys back so they will be prepared, and it will be a great environment. We will look forward to going over for the challenge. I will take any questions.
Q. Can you compare this to the Minnesota game at all in 2012? Obviously you were playing for a bowl game there, but there was a “character check” moment in the program if you guys wanted to continue. What did you see that week that you knew your guys had that in them and were prepared?
Mark Dantonio: Well, I think we’ve had that here this year, too. Our guys have not quit. Our guys have continued to practice and play extremely hard. We had an opportunity to go to a bowl game in that one, there, so there was added incentive in that particular football game, but we built it as a program game because it set the tone for next year, regardless of what was going down. I thought our seniors that year did an outstanding job accomplishing everything that we were doing, trying to do.
Q. Is it similar?
Mark Dantonio: Similar in some cases but, you know, not typical in others, as you guys already probably know. We’ve really been working at this. I was commenting on the way over, the reality of the situation is we’ve got — after our first game this year, we had a bye. So we’ve gone 11 straight weeks, 11 straight weeks as coaches and as a program, you know, grinding. It takes a toll on people mentally, physically, emotionally, but our guys have done a great job of handling that, but it’s tough, and it’s tough to respond and rebound after a loss, a tough loss, and, you know, in all situations.
We’ve done that, and we will continue to do that, and I expect our guys to play very well going over to Penn State, and that’s the goal.
Q. Mark, I know the Michigan game is obviously big for people, the Ohio State with so many guys from Ohio. You’ve got a few Pennsylvania kids on this team, too (six). Is it just as big for them to get up for? Is it tougher when the season is going like this? I know it’s going to be big for them —
Mark Dantonio: No, I think it’s going to be a very big game for those guys. We have Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson and Damion Terry and Delton Williams from Pennsylvania. Brandon Clemons is from over there as well as. This is a huge game for those guys, so they will be very, very excited to play in it.
From a program standpoint, this has been a rival game that has been established. Coach Perles and Coach Paterno were involved in that, so we have always gone over there and been excited to go, and they’ve come here as well. There is a challenge waiting for us over there, there is no question.
Q. Mark, you’ve won three straight against Penn State dating back to 2010 when you won a share of the Big Ten title in Happy Valley. Going back to that game, what does this Land Grant Trophy mean to you and your guys and trying to keep that going on Saturday?
Mark Dantonio: I think it’s become a rivalry that was started by Coach Perles and Coach Paterno, at that point in time. To me it’s always been a year-end game for us. I think almost every one of those games have been the last game of the season, whether it’s been here or there. So it’s always either sent us to a bowl game or allowed us to capture a championship, like it did last year, and in 2010, so it’s always been a game that’s had a lot of meaning, and this game has a lot of meaning this year as well.
It’s a little bit more intangible for us, it’s tangible for them, so I think both programs will play. I think that’s the nature of the game itself. Our thing is a little bit more intangible, yes, a win on the record, but there are some intangible aspects of it that will carry on with us as we go through the off-season, which will incidentally start on Monday.
Q. Kirk Cousins was your quarterback back in that 2010 game. He’s been on a terror of late. Have you talked to him about how well he’s playing?
Mark Dantonio: I haven’t talked to Kirk or anybody. I do talk to my wife on occasion (laughing). We’ve been buried in a bubble, like I just said, you know. It’s 11 weeks of about 85 hours a week, so I really haven’t talked to too many different people. I watch and listen a little bit, you know, and I know he had a great game the other day, and I’m excited for him and excited for a lot of our players. I saw Trae Waynes had nine tackles. Tony Lippett had a couple of interceptions the week before, saw Le’Veon (Bell) had 148 yards.
We get information passed to us, and I get a little update on everybody, how they’re doing, but to sit down and talk right now, I just haven’t been able to do it.
Q. You told us in week two that Mark Hollis and the administration was working on changing the bye week for next year. Have you heard anything about that?
Mark Dantonio: I think that’s been accomplished, but I think they should be the ones to recognize that.
Q. Mark, over the summer, James Franklin implied your staff and some others in the Big Ten were using the Penn State Sandusky scandal as a negative recruiting tactic against them, and then he walked that back. Since you talked about it at the conference media days, have you had any discussions about that?
Mark Dantonio: No. I addressed that at the media days, so that’s not an issue.
Q. Mark, Malik McDowell is not on the depth chart. Is there anything to read into that? What kind of conversations have you had with him about his potential NFL future?
Mark Dantonio: I just left the depth chart as it was last week, basically, so we’ll see whether he can practice or not and make decisions as the week goes on. As far as those type of discussions, those are internal. We will see how the season plays out.
Q. You said the off-season will start Monday. That’s November 28th. First time it’s happened before January. How strange does that sound?
Mark Dantonio: It’s different, there is no question about that. That’s not something that we have had to go through, but it’s something maybe that this program needs right now. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, our personnel, everything about us, and we’ll work through all the different parameters of it, recruiting starts on Monday, actually Sunday, so we have two weeks out in that capacity.Then we’ve got some time to sort of sit back and start to look at what happened. So we will trace those things and, you know, go from there. But we’ll fix it. We’ve got a great core of football players back. A lot of guys who played a lot of football, guys who are just beginning their football careers, whether they’re redshirt freshmen, true freshmen or true sophomores. We have a large group of players in that group.
Q. Talking about your seniors, Kodi Kieler is a guy who played a lot before this year, he’s moved all over the place, played basically wherever you needed him. What has he meant for this team this year, and what’s he mean for the younger guys who will be coming back next year on that offensive line?
Mark Dantonio: Kodi (had a) transition to offensive center (at the beginning of the season). He’s a guy with a great amount of offensive line knowledge. He played, as you said, right tackle, left tackle, center, he’s been hurt, banged up, right ankle, left shoulder, whatever, and he’s maintained basically that core value of toughness that sorta has permeated throughout our football team.
Really, when you get down to it, we’ve been a tough football team to continually rise up every single game and play. The amazing thing about this season is we have been ahead in every football game, sometimes in the first quarter, sometimes in the third or fourth quarters. We’re going to play competitively, and I think the reasons we do that are people like him.
It’s tough for our seniors; they’re playing their last game. As I said, Sunday night, or at some point in time, maybe there is going to become a void in our seniors’ lives because they’re not going to be involved in football. They’re going to want to go to the NFL, do other things, maybe outside of football, but there is always a void when you are done playing, when you’ve been told weights are this time, practice is this time, classes are this time. You have a very, very structured schedule. It’s basically organized for you.
You’re now going to have to take and organize your own schedule and become passionate about what you want to do for a living. Most people want to continue to play football, but that’s tough to do. But our seniors have done a great job. I’m disappointed that we’re not able to give them a bowl game this year and be able for them to have that final experience, but with that being said, they’ve won a lot of football games here, 39 football games in four years. They’ve had a lot of great experiences and a lot of great memories, and they’ve got their rings.
Q. Mark, last week seemed like one of the first times that L.J. Scott was really kind of your bell cow through an entire game as far as being a running back. Is that what you envisioned for him when he first came here, given his talent, and what can it do for him going forward?
Mark Dantonio: L.J. is a good tailback. That’s what I envisioned for all the guys we recruited at every single position. We want them to be tremendous football players. He’s had some other good games, I think he has been the lead horse at other times. There has been times when every one of those tail backs have become that guy, that lead horse. We ride the hot back. After he hit a couple, he became the hot back. He only had 19 carries, so it’s not like he was — had a 30-carry day or something of that nature. I think he had some explosive plays and that allowed us to move the ball offensively, especially in that second touchdown drive.
Q. I know you’re going to reevaluate after the last game but some of these young guys have been getting a chance to play whether they’re redshirt guys, like Cole Chewins or Tyler Higby before he got hurt, and Raequan Williams or some of the true freshmen, Justin Layne, whoever it is. Have you been impressed with the progress you’ve seen? Is it hard to sit back in the midst of everything and see how far those guys have come?
Mark Dantonio: We’re going to totally evaluate everybody. We will make exclusive tapes on Justin Layne exactly, where he played and how he played throughout the whole season, and he will have a tape, and everybody will have a tape, and that tape will get evaluated, so we will be able to see his progress, but I think all of our young players have really progressed.
I think you look at a guy like Cole Chewins, who came in, he really didn’t start playing until two-thirds into the season, Justin Layne, probably half the season. All these guys, Mike Panasiuk, Raequan, all these guys are playing maybe their best football right now. I think collectively as a football team our last two weeks may have been our best two weeks, maybe the last four or so, I don’t know, up and down a little bit in the Illinois game, I don’t know, but I think there has been great improvement by our young players, and that’s usually the case, because I think as a young player the learning curve is maybe more drastic. You’re going to learn faster. I think there is more to learn, obviously, so you have more to gain, more room to grow.
Q. Is there any conflict with how the you handle the quarterback this week? You haven’t had many games like this, with relatively little at stake, but to play a guy like Damion Terry because he could be part of your future, or do you feel like you owe it to Tyler O’Connor to let him play his final game?
Mark Dantonio: There is a little bit of conflict there, I would agree with that, and we’ll make decisions based on how guys practice this week. There is a little conflict there, yeah, because Tyler has done a great job, but there are no givens here, and Damion has a future here, too, so I think that you will see both those guys.
Q. Is there any part of you that is anxious for this to end and move on?
Mark Dantonio: Well, I wish we played 18 games, then I could work 17 weeks in a row, but I would like to continue to play to try and play ourselves into something because I don’t think we’re that far away, I really don’t. I see good things out there. You see things that are — we just played — we played — this will be our fourth top-10 team we’re playing this year, so I think we will play with them, so we’re not that far way.
Sometimes you look and you say that, and then you look at other spectrums and you say, we’re a long ways from where we were last year.
So I think that’s natural, but I think you want to keep on competing. So I’m quite sure a lot of our players would not want the season to end. Some of them might, because it’s been a grind, too, but there’s a lot of them, certainly I think our seniors really don’t want this to end. It’s just the way the college game is built.
Q. So you think the 3-8 is deceptive? You are 3-8 but you are not really a 3-8 football team?
Mark Dantonio: You are what you are. At the end of it all you’re going to look at that and say this is what you are. But I think we had opportunities to win every football game so, you know, college is — you gotta be vested to make those decisions in this program. You’ve really got to totally be vested it and know the ins and outs, and then you can make those statements. If you’re sitting on the outside looking in: You are what you are.
Q. I know you mentioned the off-season starts Monday without necessarily looking too far ahead. What do you want the guys to know about how their off-season goes, from what you are going to do internally discussion-wise in terms of roles moving forward and what kind of things they need to do and what do you guys do now?
Mark Dantonio: That will get all laid out to our football team. Our players will know it starts here, as we always have said that, there is a starting point and ending point and it starts.
So whether we finish at the end of last year coming out of the playoffs, you know, that had an ending point, and it’s restarted. This has an ending point, now it starts. That’s the biggest thing. We’ll handle it, and everybody will be all in.
Q. I know we talked about not having the bowl practices, I guess, from the tangible side of that, again, when you guys are moving on the upward trend here, especially on defense the last couple of weeks, that finality seems like it’s probably not — you probably want to continue that progression.
Mark Dantonio: The reality of the situation we’ve had so many injuries and so many young players playing that it’s been like bowl practice, and they even get an added uplifting, because they get to play in games, too, so our young players are playing, most of them, or a lot of them.
The second factor is that we have been taking the last couple weeks and having different parts of practice where we get our truly younger players that are redshirting into that — they’re playing more, too, in practice. So they’re getting looked at a little bit more closely than normally. Then the reality of the situation, even last year as we had an extra week to go play in the Big Ten Championship game, that was all about business.
Then as you got into bowl practice, we couldn’t afford to lose anybody, even a guy who was being redshirted due to the practices that we needed to have relative to the bowl practices and at the bowl site. We really didn’t do much of that. We stayed the course and tried to win a national championship, and we were one game away from playing for it. When you look back at this now, it’s confounding, I guess. But we are where we’re at, like I said, so we’ve got to change it and the only way it gets changed is by addressing issues and squaring it up. That’s what we’ll do.
Q. Mark, last summer on my radio show Jack Allen said that Cole Chewins, he wasn’t sure whether it would be this year or not, would be a multi-year starting star. He went on and ranted and raved about how good Cole was. What is it about him? His teammates seem to genuinely love him, and you’re obviously impressed with his play. What makes him a special kid?
Mark Dantonio: Physically he’s got a lot of range. He’s going to get stronger and bigger as he goes, but he’s got a great attention to detail and intangibly. He’s tough, he’s extremely smart, very coachable, he’s an all-in type guy. Teammates love him, leadership skills and all those things are just who he is.
When you went to Clarkston and you recruited him, that’s what you heard about and that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got a guy who is dynamic in those areas and he’s just — he’s getting bigger, he’s put on 20 pounds and he’s going to put on another 20 by next year. Guy eats probably more peanut butter sandwiches than anyone we know, but he’s going to put that on there, and he’s a guy that works after practice on his own, and you see the diligence.