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December 7, 2013

Pick Six & Talkback: 'It's Our Time'

INDIANAPOLIS - Picking our six favorite quotes from Mark Dantonio's press conference, Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium in advance of today's Big Ten Championship Game, and offering SpartanMag 'Talkback' opinions about his comments:

1. What did you get out of going live in practice this week and what did you see from your team throughout this preparation?

DANTONIO:Saw Damion Terry make some plays that got you excited.I think you're trying to put yourself in as many game‑like situations, safe, not getting injured, so you can simulate as close to what you're going to see on Saturday.I think we pushed the envelope there a little bit to try to do that. We did do that on Tuesday.We didn't do it as much on Wednesday.We did it some.We didn't do it yesterday.

I think our players need to understand, Hey, it's not touch out there, it's full‑contact. We have to play.

There's no question in my mind that Braxton Miller is the most physical quarterback that we have played this year in terms of his physicality, in terms of taking hits and running with power as a quarterback.




Comp's Take: I think it was last year prior to the Michigan game that defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said the Spartan defense would go live in practice against the scout team order to keep their tackling sharp while preparing for a speedy quarterback. In saying this, Narduzzi mumbled under his breath that he learned his lesson earlier in the year for not practicing with live contact prior to the Big Ten season opener against the Buckeyes. Narduzzi came out of that game feeling that the defense wasn't quite as physical, wasn't as crisp with its tackling as it needed to be against the fast, spinning, strong-bodied Braxton Miller.

It's one thing to sprinkle in some live tackling against the scout team in October for a rivalry game against Michigan. It's another to refrain from live tackling in late September as a means of saving bodies for a long haul. To consider that MSU went with live tackling this week, this late in the season, in preparation for a 13th game, is way more wild than some may realize. Usually, teams are trying to survive the month of November, on aching, breaking bodies. That was the case with MSU last year, due in part to the late nature of last year's bye week.

This year, MSU and all other Big Ten teams received two bye weeks, because there was an extra week between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. MSU's bye weeks were perfectly timed for long-term freshness.

Also, MSU has a lot of mature bodies on defense, and quality depth. MSU has the luxury of putting guys at risk a little bit in practice in order to chase the end result of physical sharpness. MSU has come through it healthy at every turn, dating all the way back to making the quarterbacks live in the spring, and deep into August camp.

Going live prior to Game 10 last year against Nebraska would have been unthinkable. Last year's Spartan defense was banged up and desperately needed a week of rest prior to that game with the Huskers. The Huskers got loose for three big plays against MSU's creaky defense which changed the outcome of that game.

This year, MSU happened to be fresh enough, after eight straight wins, to go into a 13th prep week in 15 weeks with plans of going live, without a bit of reservation.

Things were so lively on Tuesday that they said they needed to scale it back on Wednesday.

Did MSU leave any of its bite on the practice field this week? Did they leave enough of the lion in the cage, as Dantonio says? We'll find out tonight. And if MSU bottles up a truly great Ohio State offense, we'll have to go back and look at the decision to go live during practice week as not only a good move, but also a move of luxury - one borne out of a deep, mature roster and also favorable timing of bye weeks.

As for Terry, it's going to be another interesting spring as that talented redshirting freshman works to earn a role behind - yes behind - a second-team All-Big Ten QB in Connor Cook.




2. Last year, it seemed like Wisconsin was the looser team, more comfortable team because they've been in the game before. What is the mood of your team entering this game?

DANTONIO: I hope it's loose and focused.We're looking for extremes. But we have been here before.

We experienced this challenge, this opportunity, in 2011. We made that turn on the highway and saw Lucas Oil, it became a reality.

When we took that turn, saw Lucas Oil, my feeling when we saw the stadium was, Okay, we've been there. It wasn't, Wow, here we are, what are we doing here? It's like, We've been here, we need to take the next step here.

There's been a focus, there has been all week.We have a lot of players from Ohio, from the Midwest.They understand the nature of this football game, the nature of where we're at.


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But that's where that experience ends.We have to play a different football team with different problems, different things we have to deal with.But I do think having been here before, our players understand a little bit about the environment here.

Is that going to help us win? What's going to happen on the field tomorrow will help us win.We've always been loose and confident, but we've always been about business, too. We're not out here to make friends.

3. How important is it for your offense, the confidence of your offense, to get out to a fast start considering Ohio State can do the same thing?

DANTONIO: I think the biggest focus that we have to have is as an offense we have to be consistent, not beat ourselves.We have to do what we have to do. I can't say, do we have to be off on a fast start, score the first three possessions? It would be great if I could say that. This is over the long haul. Last time we were in this football game, we got off to a relatively slow start, then the second quarter was ours.

The main thing that I want us to understand is there's no panic.We need to play every play, not panic, be fresh, have our mindset, and understand the speed of the game.

Quite frankly, the question just was asked from an offensive standpoint with Braxton Miller, the speed of the game; we can't simulate that in its entirety. The speed of the game on both sides of the ball is going to be different from what we practiced against.We have to adapt to the speed of the game as we move forward. I think that's one of the big things in this football game.


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We have great team speed on defense, but we've got to adjust to that and have tackling ability, play the ball in the deep part of the field, things that allow you to be successful.




Comp's Take: I don't know about early points, but I'll be watching to see how Cook handles the early moments of the game. He's a confident guy, constructively cocky. So confident that he can't wait to pull the trigger on things, and sometimes he has pulled the trigger off-target early in games. He acknowledged that he had some jitters in starts against Notre Dame, Nebraska and even South Florida. He has grown so much since those games. But this stage is enormous. Factor in that he is playing against the university of his home state, Ohio. Factor in that Ohio State sought Braxton Miller rather than Cook on the recruiting trail. Cook's internal RPMs are going to be as high as anyone's, and he didn't have the in-game experience of playing here two years ago.

He has had an excellent season, as the most pleasant surprise in the program. Now can he throttle it down and play like an experienced veteran? That's a tough task. But that's what MSU needs from him, as the Spartan offense likely will need to be opportunistic and productive in order to keep up with high-scoring Buckeyes on the scoreboard. OSU's leaky pass coverage has left receivers open due to coverage busts on a near-weekly basis. If OSU has the same problems on Saturday, Cook needs to connect on all of them, and not overthrow anyone in the end zone, like he did early in the Nebraska game.

A lot is being asked of Cook. But that's nothing new.

What is new is that in past weeks Cook was asked to manage the game, provide balance without making the big mistakes. Cook was never asked to carry the offense and generate large numbers of points. Tonight might be a little different, if the MSU defense isn't able to hold the Buckeyes below 24 points.




4. Q. When you see Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde on film, what are some things that stand out? Why have they been so difficult to stop?

DANTONIO: In terms of Braxton Miller, I see a magician, a guy with a sixth sense, a guy that can take a bad play and make it a very good play, a guy that can create, a guy that's conceptually ‑‑ you can know what Ohio State is doing, be right on top of it, do what you do to stop it that particular time, but he can create and make it a good play. We have to be able to defend the loose plays. He's been excellent at that.

Second thing, Carlos Hyde is a bull of a runner. He's not just tough, he's fast.We've got to be able to control him.That's designed runs with him.Also has the ability to catch the football.

Be a great challenge for our defense.We're looking forward to that opportunity and that challenge.That's why we're here at this game.That's why they're here.They're very, very formidable.

What you see (from Ohio State's offense) and what I see as a defensive coach, you see concepts that are difficult to handle. You see concepts which create a tailback in the backfield in a one‑back set having Braxton Miller as the quarterback. Using pulling guards, pulling tackles, zone plays, run‑pass conflicts, those types of things. Then you see great wide receivers catching the ball deep down the field. You also see a bull of a tailback that runs with great power.You see some other guys that are electrifying as well.You see a very experienced offensive line.

What you see is an extremely productive offensive football team that is capable of a big play at any point in time, at any given moment, from anywhere on the field. We've got to be able to control that, work through that. That's why I said earlier, we've got to get accustomed to the speed of the game as the game moves forward.

They are a no‑huddle offense, which further complicates things. It's en vogue now. You play against those naturally all the time now. We've done that. Been there with that.

At the same time, they have different tempos, those type of things. They're a very well‑coached football team with tremendous players with an X factor, the X factor being Braxton Miller, quarterback. That's what makes it so difficult.

With that being said, we've experienced success playing people. Our defensive football team is motivated. We want to play against the best. We want to prove that we are the best.I think we're prepared.




Comp's Take: Hyde is the best running back I've seen all year, anywhere in the country. And Ohio State has the most physical offensive line I've ever seen within a spread offense. MSU might be tasked with trying to find a way to win while giving up more than 200 yards rushing.



5. Braxton Miller's versatility is a large part of what they do on offense.You have guys like Tony Lippett that can imitate his speed.Can you talk about how important that was.

DANTONIO: Damion Terry played that role this week as well as Trey Kilgore, who was a quarterback in high school.He's a wide receiver.I thought Terry and Kilgore, but especially Terry did a tremendous job working that.

But still he's not Braxton Miller yet.He's a guy that's extremely gifted.A big, physical‑type runner.Braxton Miller is more like a tailback than he is a Denard Robinson type.He's a more physical runner.He's a break‑tackle type of runner.That's what makes him even more difficult to handle.

We have to adjust to that as we go We did that last year. Made some plays.Lost by one point.They're a better football team than they were at that time.But I think we are, too.

We'll find out what all that means tomorrow night.




Comp's Take: In watching a replay of last year's MSU-OSU game this week, I was struck by MSU's lack of physicality at defensive tackle. Anthony Rashad-White was decent against double-teams, but Micajah Reynolds is much better against double teams than he was a year ago. Last year, Reynolds was a back-up DT and Ohio State was able to road-grade him out of the way a few times on key interior runs. Reynolds also got out of his gap on the first play of Ohio State's clock-melting final drive. Reynolds plays with much better technique, strength and gap discipline now. That doesn't ensure victory over course, as OSU's offensive line has improved too. But it's a key area of improvement over last year's game.

Also, James Kittredge played a lot of downs at DT in last year's game. He, too, was unable to withstand double-teams, and was often put on roller skates and moved backward by a couple of yards. Kittredge has battled injuries this year and is no longer in the playing group. Quite frankly, the Kittredge that I saw on film in this game wouldn't quite be good enough to crack this year's rotation of Reynolds, Tyler Hoover, Damon Knox and Mark Scarpinato. These four are not great, maybe not good enough to hold the point against the nation's best rushing offense, but these four are better than last year's four MSU defensive tackles. Reynolds and Hoover were especially solid last week versus double teams against a good, physical Minnesota offensive line. That was a good sign heading into this game. But I still don't think MSU has the type of dominant interior figures needed to uproot a truly great running attack like Ohio State's. I think it will take a National Championship type of defensive line to satisfactorily slow down the Buckeyes ground game.

On the flip side, does Ohio State have what I have called, over the years, a "National Championship" defensive line? The answer is no. They're good. They are athlete. They get after the QB on third down. But no, they don't have that LSU/Alabama/Florida/Oklahoma/Ohio State '02/Auburn of '10 type of defensive line. Urban Meyer may disagree, as he has coached a pair of National Championship defensive lines at Florida.

We'll have to wait and see if it's MSU or Florida State which exposes Ohio State's defensive line as being good, but not great enough to win a National Championship. Every National Champion in the last 30 years has had one thing in common: a dominant defensive line.

Other things that stood out to me in watching the game again: As much as we all love Andrew Maxwell, and as solid as his numbers were in last year's game, he just wasn't nearly as settled and calm in the pocket at Cook has been this year. He was hurt by dropped passes, but also some inaccurate throws, and ineffective decisions to shut down plays in the face of pressure rather than elongate plays.




6. Since day one you made no secret that the goal at Michigan State is to win the Big Ten Championship and go to the Rose Bowl. I know this game means a lot to you and your team.For your fan base, the anticipation for this game is off the charts. Do you talk to your team about what this win would mean to Michigan State, everybody that buys the tickets?

DANTONIO: Yeah, we talk about that.I think you've got to dream big. I think that's part of sports.Every season we've gone into the season saying we're going to get to this game, we're going to get to the Rose Bowl, we're going to get into this game since its inception.That's what we talk about.That's what we plan for.

As a coach, that's what you're trying to create for people. I think maybe a lot of fans are like that, too.For our players right now it's a special time.It's out time.We've earned the right to be here.I'm just very happy for our football team, our players, their families, because it's a special moment.

These should be life moments.If you're playing in high school, you're playing a championship game, you should be able to remember that for the rest of your life. If you happen to go to the NFL, play a championship game, that will be in your mind the rest of your life.This is no different.

My thoughts are, what I try and give to our team is, this is an opportunity, you need to nail it, but this is an opportunity you should remember for the rest of your life win or lose.

Certainly we want to win the football game. No question about that.We've prepared very hard. But win or lose, you will remember that because of the magnitude of the game, the sense of camaraderie that you have with the people that experienced these things, not this game, but the entire 2013 season.It started last year on February the 4th.That's when we started this.

I do understand how much it means to the Spartan Nation out there. At the same time we live in a little bit of a bubble, those who are in it, as coaches and players. It takes on even an added significance for those people because they really are, right now as we sit here, they're in a life moment. They're in a moment they should remember for the rest of their lives.




Comp's Take: MSU fans don't need me to put into words what this means to them. They feel it. Pasadena is the promised land of college football. Those of us that were there in '87, as fans or reporters or whatever, began to think we may not get back in our lifetimes, right? We still might not. But if we do, it will be, like Dantonio says, a life moment. I'm rooting for you guys and girls, the readers, to have a favorable life moment, Saturday night.







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