EAST LANSING - Give Spartan head football coach Mark Dantonio credit.
During his weekly radio show on Wednesday night, he could have vented to the high heavens about the pass interference calls, some questionable, that many would say cost the Spartans a chance to win the game.
Even when host George Blaha lobbed him a softball to hit out of the park, giving Dantonio every opportunity to make a comment, subtle or blatant, about the calls that became key for the Notre Dame game, Dantonio refused to take the bait.
"We had our opportunities. There's a lot of different ways to win a football game. We're in the red zone, obviously you've got to come up with touchdowns. I thought we played extremely well on defense but the ball goes on the ground three times, two times on punts and one time in the scrimmage, and then we've also got two turnovers that were overturned.
The third phase is what everybody seems to be talking about but we'll leave that one alone.''
That brought an uneasy laugh from those in attendance and an immediate comment from Blaha, who said, 'the officiating.'
"We'll leave that alone,'' Dantonio repeated. "We had other opportunities to win the football game but the good things are when you take away from what you take away from it. You see the strengths of what we were able to do. We won at the line of scrimmage I felt, we ran the ball effectively. The quarterback had time to throw the football. Defensively, we played very well. They had 12 yards passing in the second half, completed two passes. Seven first downs on penalties (for Notre Dame), 14 total but we've got to win the football game. I'm not naive to that (the pass interference calls) and I understand - and nobody's more frustrated than we are with that aspect - but at the same time, we grew and that's as important as anything. Probably, the most frustrating thing is when you play well enough to win and you don't win. But there are a lot of lessons learned, we'll take stock in that and move forward.''
To Answer Your Question
While Dantonio wouldn't speak directly to the interference calls at Notre Dame, he did provide a humorous answer when asked by a fan if he would be in favor of replay on penalty calls.
"Is that something you would think would ever be a good option?" Dantonio was asked.
"Well, it would have been last week,'' he replied to the approval of those in attendance. "But in all honesty, officials are human too and they're doing the very best that they can do out there. These are bang-bang plays. They're very close plays and when you slow it down on TV they can make decisions. But it's very difficult to officiate and I think if they looked at every penalty it would be very difficult as they go because there are a lot that they miss completely and there are others that are called. So it goes both ways and you hope things even out at the end of everything. All I can say, and I guess you watched the game because I was a little upset on the sideline - I wasn't my usually smiley face - but I think what you have to be able to do is move forward. You have to be able to put it behind you because if you dwell on the past, the past is going to creep up on you and you can never get back to where you were, you can never be positive about anything. So it's important that you be able to have in your mind, 'okay, that happened, what's the next challenge? You have to be able to move forward, you have to be able to play on and that's called resiliency, and that's called composure and I pray for that every week.''
A caller asked Dantonio if he was calling plays at Notre Dame because he saw him with a clipboard on the sidelines.
After the failed halfback pass that resulted in a turnover, it was probably a valid question, especially since MSU had been moving the ball on the ground with success up to that point. And while Dantonio took the blame after the game for the call, he was quick to kill any notion that he would be more involved in the offensive play in the future, eventhough he reiterated that the call was his on the play.
"I've always got the plays on the sideline. It's not a clipboard, it's the offensive plays. Coach (Dave) Warner is calling the game. It's very difficult if somebody interjects or somebody's talking. It just too difficult to do. You have to let one person take charge of that. So (Warner's) the guy. We interject different things in between series. I did make the call, just so everybody knows, I did make the call on the trick play. I've called a couple of good ones (which brought a laugh from the crowd), so I get a little ticket there, a get out of jail free card but I thought he did an outstanding job and there's certain things we try an do every single week to try and take advantage of who we're playing. You have to tweak different things and come up with new things because (your opponent is) constantly scouting you as well.''
On Kyler Elsworth
One or two Spartans are invited to talk at the show each week and while it's a lovefest, having someone like former walk-on and senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth on the air is a feel-good story that just keeps on giving.
Elsworth came in as a 185-pound preferred walk-on that did his inaugural interview with defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett after turning down a full ride scholarship in wrestling despite a prep career that saw him compile a 232-16 record.
"I knew that he was going to be something special. I just didn't know if he'd get big enough to play linebacker or fullback or what it was going to be,'' Dantonio said. "But I knew he was going to be a hard worker and be successful.''
Elsworth has become just another great example of MSU's ability to find diamonds in the rough during Dantonio's tenure.
People always ask me, 'do you miss wrestling?,' and I know for a fact, if I would have wrestled and never played football, I'd be looking back right now saying, 'man, I wish I was there,' said the 6-foot-1, 225-pound, 5th-year senior, who was originally recruited as a wide receiver.
Clearing The Slate
While acknowledging the importance of the MSU-Notre Dame rivalry, Dantonio continued to distance the team away from the loss with a look ahead stance.
"The bulk of who we are and what we do remains to be seen in the Big Ten conference and that's where our focus needs to go, whether we were 4-0 or 3-1. We're a 3-1 football team, we're a good 3-1 football team. Our defense is playing outstanding. So you can hang your hat on that.''
Work To Be Done
Dantonio offered this up when asked about the program's bye week plans, which will include most of his players returning home for some quality time with family and friends.
''Coach (Mark) Staten took a flight out Sunday evening. He got back on a red-eye Wednesday morning at 7:15. He slept in the parking lot for a half hour and was in the office and worked the whole day. I let him off in the evening.
"You only have 42 opportunities to evaluate players in the fall and I think we've used 27 of those opportunities.''
The Little Things
It may not mean much but it's one of the reasons Dantonio will be long revered by Spartan fans once his tenure ends.
Prior to getting into the football speak portion of his weekly radio show, Dantonio, as he has been known to do on occasion, paid homage to a former member of his support staff.
"First of all, I just want to thank everybody for coming, especially Pam Henning, who's out there sitting and about pulled me over a table when I walked in,'' Dantonio joked. "So Pam if you're out there, I just wanted to say hi. She's a longtime secretary at Michigan State, I think 40-plus years and it was great to see her out there.''
"The thing about Iowa is that they're going to do what they do. They're not going to be anything other than what you see. What you saw two years ago is probably what you see now. They play hard, they play tough. We've recruited against them, so we know a lot of their players.''
RICO'S TAKE: It was obvious that Dantonio was willing and wanted to do everything possible, especially with the bye week, to distance his team from the loss at Notre Dame. He put the onus for the team's destiny for the remainder of the season back into his players hands by refusing to offer excuses for the loss, even injecting some humor. Only time will tell if this approach was beneficial going forward as the Spartans move into Big Ten play with their conference opener at Iowa on Oct. 5.
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