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Michigan State Football Update: 9/18/19

Posted at 10:59 AM, Sep 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-18 10:59:24-04

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 Big Ten Conference opener at Northwestern on Saturday.

Dantonio will look to become Michigan State’s all-time winningest coach as the Spartans open Big Ten play at Northwestern on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT in Evanston, Illinois. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC, with Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Greg McElroy (analyst) and Tom Luginbill (sidelines) on the call. The Spartans went 2-1 in nonconference play after falling at home to Arizona State last Saturday in East Lansing, 10-7, while Northwestern is 1-1 following a 30-14 home win over UNLV.

With the 51-17 victory over Western Michigan on Sept. 7 in East Lansing, Dantonio tied Duffy Daugherty for the most wins in Michigan State history with 109. Daugherty, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, collected a 109-69-5 record in East Lansing from 1954-72 (19 seasons). He won four National Championships (1955, 1957, 1965, 1966), two Big Ten Championships (1965, 1966) and the 1956 Rose Bowl. A two-time National Coach of the Year (1955, 1965), Daugherty coached 29 different players to first-team All-America honors and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

Saturday’s game marks the 58th meeting between Michigan State and Northwestern. The Spartans lead the all-time series 37-20, including a 19-11 record in Evanston. MSU 13th-year head coach Mark Dantonio is 5-5 in his tenure against Northwestern, while 14th-year Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald is 5-6 in his career against Michigan State. Dantonio is 4-1 against Northwestern at Ryan Field. The Spartans are looking to snap a three-game losing skid to the Wildcats

Michigan State opens its 67th season of Big Ten play on Saturday. The Spartans have won nine Big Ten Championships since joining the conference for football in 1953, including a school-record three by head coach Mark Dantonio (2010, 2013, 2015). Dantonio’s .657 winning percentage (65-34) in Big Ten games ranks first in MSU history (minimum 10 Big Ten games), and he ranks second in school history in conference wins (Duffy Daugherty, 72). Dantonio is 8-4 in Big Ten openers at MSU.

Defensively, the Spartans continue to rank among the national leaders in rushing defense (No. 2 at 23.3 ypg), total defense (No. 3 at 216.0 ypg), sacks (No. 5 at 4.3 pg), scoring defense (No. 12 at 11.3 ppg) and turnovers gained (No. 20 at 6).

Preseason All-American and 2018 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes, who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss last season with 20.5, is back at it again in 2019 for the Spartans. Willekes is second in the conference and third in the FBS with 6.5 tackles for loss, and third in the league and tied for eighth in the FBS with four sacks. His 1.38 tackles for loss per game ranks first among active players in the FBS.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke ranks second in the Big Ten in passing (265.7 ypg) and total offense (285.7 ypg) and has thrown the most passing yards (797) of any conference quarterback in the first three weeks of the 2019 season. The Phoenix, Arizona, native has completed 68-of-107 passes (.636) for 797 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Lewerke became just the sixth Spartan QB to eclipse 6,000 yards passing in his career during the Arizona State game and is currently ranked sixth in the school record book with 6,011 career passing yards. Lewerke also ranks among the school leaders in pass attempts (fourth with 920), total offense (fifth with 6,963 yards), pass completions (fifth with 529), passing yards per game (fifth with 193.9 ypg) and passing TDs (ninth with 34).

Fifth-year senior wide receiver Darrell Stewart ranks second in the Big Ten, only to Purdue’s Rondale Moore, in receptions (25; 8.3 pg) and receiving yards (362; 120.7 ypg). Stewart has put together back-to-back 100-yard receiving games the past two weeks for the first time at MSU since Aaron Burbridge had four straight 100-yard games in 2015 (156 vs. Rutgers on Oct. 10; 132 vs. Michigan on Oct. 17; 128 yards vs. Indiana on Oct. 24; 164 at Nebraska on Nov. 7). Stewart had a career-high 185 yards receiving on 10 catches vs. Western Michigan and followed that effort with a nine-catch, 121-yard performance vs. Arizona State. Stewart’s 126 career catches are tied for 14th most in MSU history.

Now in his 13th season as head coach of the Spartans, Mark Dantonio owns a 109-52 (.677) record. Dantonio has won the most Big Ten Championships (three) and bowl games (five) of any Spartan head coach and also ranks first with 11 bowl appearances. He is the only active Big Ten coach to win multiple Big Ten Championships (2010, 2013, 2015), claim a victory in the Rose Bowl (2014), and coach in the College Football Playoff (2015). Tied for the winningest coach in school history with 109 victories, along with Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty, Dantonio also ranks first in program history in conference winning percentage (.657, 65-34 record, minimum 10 games); tied for first in AP Top 25 finishes (seven); second in Big Ten wins (65), home wins (65) and AP Top 25 wins (21); and fifth in overall winning percentage (.677). Dantonio has 10 winning seasons in his 12 years in East Lansing, including a school-record 11 bowl bids.

Michigan State is in the midst of its winningest decade in school history based on total wins, as the Spartans are 87-35 (.713) since the beginning of the 2010 season. The 87 wins this decade are third most in the Big Ten and tied for 13th most in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. During that span, MSU has won five bowl games (2012 Outback, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings, 2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton, 2017 Holiday), three Big Ten Championships (2010, 2013, 2015) and three Big Ten Division titles (2011, 2013, 2015). MSU’s .713 winning percentage this decade is third best in school history. MSU was the only school to finish in the top-six of the national polls from 2013-15 (No. 3 in 2013, No. 5 in 2014, No. 6 in 2015) and the 36 wins from 2013-15 marked the winningest three-year stretch in the history of the program. In addition, the Spartans have earned 11 bowl bids since 2007, including a school-record four consecutive bowl victories (2012 Outback against No. 18 Georgia, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings against TCU, 2014 Rose Bowl Game against No. 5 Stanford, 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 4 Baylor), which also tied a Big Ten record.

The following is a complete transcript from the press conference:

HEAD COACH MARK DANTONIO: First of all, opening game of the Big Ten, so focus is on that and not on what's occurred this last weekend. That's important. Historically has been tight games here.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pat Fitzgerald, not just what he's done at Northwestern, but his leadership and what he's been able to do across the country from a leadership standpoint and the continuity he's had at Northwestern, going into his 14th year, 97 wins, I believe, and he's into his 14th year.

So they've got continuity and has based a lot of their success on that, as well. They are the defending West champions, so this will be a challenge for us.

You know, offensively, when you look at them, Hunter Johnson is their quarterback, a transfer from Clemson; younger player. Not sure whether (Isaiah) Bowser will be playing, he's been out the Stanford game and missed last week, but certainly have an opportunity. Good player, Drake Anderson, filled in. Did a nice job this past week. Offensive line has three guys back. Their receivers are very capable guys, big-play guys, and they -- they spread the ball around to all those guys and play all six of them, 88 is probably their top guy, (Bennett) Skowronek.

Defensively, (Joe) Gaziano, 97, big defensive end, Paddy Fisher, linebacker, sort of heads those guys up. Mike Hankwitz, defensive coordinator there and has been for a long time. A guy who had been at Purdue when I was a graduate assistant there, very meticulous guy, and they will be prepared. Special teams, solid, and we'll get ready to play.

So we're going to stay upbeat, we're going to stay focused on the task at hand. And I'll take some questions.

Q. I know there's been some guys banged up on the offensive line, but this week we see three of those freshmen now on the depth chart. Is it just a matter of guys being dinged up or are those guys making progress? Do you see them working into a role where they could play?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: All three of those freshmen have been working with the twos and have been up with the twos and have been exclusively working on the second units.

What we have done is spread the other guys around on the first unit and having them playing different positions. I think those guys are prepared and whether they play this week or not will remain to be seen, depending on how we are playing, depending on injuries and things of that nature.

All three of those guys have been up with us really through the whole month of August and into September. They are getting ready. It's just a bit of time on the offensive line.

Q. With Kevin Jarvis not on the depth chart, is that a long term injury, significant injury, do you have a status update on that?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: That will be probably a six- to seven-week injury. So I would expect back maybe by Penn State, or for sure, November. So he's not a season-lost guy, but he's out right now, so I thought it would be pertinent not to have him on the depth chart.

Q. Your penalties from 14 to two and then back to 10, most penalized team in the league now. Why is that happening and how do you fix it?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, I guess you'd have to look at each penalty and try to make that assumption as to what went down on that one.

You know, without having a list of them right in front of me, we had three, I believe, on special teams, three or four on special teams. We had two roughing the passers. We had one hands in the face, which I think is in question, on defense.

On offense, I believe we had a holding call that's in question. There's some in question but you've got to just play it out. You know, we've got to fix that. We address it every single day. We have reps out there every single day. You've got to play penalty-free, puts you behind the 8-ball, and also takes away from some of the different plays that occurred on that that were positive plays. It's frustrating, yeah.

Q. For whatever reason, they have been able to win three in a row in this series against you guys and score some points. Pat was trying to explain it in media days, there's no magic to it, but how have they been able to have the edge in this series?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Their quarterback (Clayton Thorson) played well in those games, and execution. I would say execution, and then there's been some breakdowns. Obviously again, anytime there's a play, there's a breakdown, and there's a team that executes and there's a team that has a breakdown, whether it's schematically or functionally or structurally, or whatever it is.

Q. Along the same lines with the true freshman, Julian Barnett, we saw him make a big play. Where is he at in his progression? Is he a guy you could see being used more as we move through the year here?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I see him being a guy that could possibly be playing more plays. He's just, you know, some of the routes and things of that -- that nature, he needs to become a little bit more maybe crisp in terms of where he's going but I think he's extremely capable.

I also think (Tre) Mosley is a guy that we'll see before the season's out, as well. I think he's coming, as well. Young players, good players, very good players.

Q. Going to Northwestern, it seems like -- nothing charted but seems like more Michigan State fans there than most other places you go, and you tend to have a lot of support there. What is it like going there? Does it feel like an away game or different because you have so much alumni there?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Chicago is a great Michigan State hub and there's a lot of Spartan fans there and traditionally when we go there, there's a whole side (visitor's side of stadium) that's packed with Michigan State fans and I would expect the same thing. It's a fun place to play because we're up there -- should be good, from that perspective.

Q. Your teams have suffered difficult non-conference losses before, before making a run for the Big Ten. What do you see from this group, this team in this locker room that leads you to believe it's possible again?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: I believe we have a positive vibe in the locker room. I think we have good chemistry. I've said that over and over throughout and when you have a situation like this, and we could have, you know, we could be 3-0 right now but we're not.

At the end of the day, you've got to regroup. You can't stand there and say -- you can't have the "poor me's." You can't sit there and say, all is lost, oh, my goodness, what just happened. You have to rally back. I think it's very important that you rally back in terms of what you're trying to do.

This is a team game. This is game that mandates a lot of different things, whether it's coaching or whether it's execution or whether it's playing against guys that, are equally, physically gifted as you are, there's always, I guess, what is it, a yin or a yang or something like that. There's always a push and a pull and it goes back and forth all the time. So you've got to have respect for the people that you're playing against and you have to be able to play past that.

But the main thing that you'd better be able to do, you'd better be able to regroup when things go wrong with your program or inside, or you personally. You'd better be able to regroup. If you can't regroup, then that's a problem.

We will regroup. I can promise you that. We will coach with energy; I can promise you that. I can promise you that we will address the issues and we're going to continue to get better, and I think that there are a lot of good things that are happening.

I think (Brian) Lewerke is playing well. When your quarterback is playing well, great things are going to happen for you. We've got some younger players playing, trying to figure out where and what, to some degree -- to some degree, whether it's a redshirt freshman or a true freshman. Some guys injured a little bit and they are coming back. Our focus has to be on what can we do now, what's important now and that's what we'll do.

Q. Going back to that left tackle spot, is there any progress with Cole (Chewins) or AJ (Arcuri)? And when you made the decision of putting (Tyler) Higby there over (Devontae) Dobbs, how much of that is based on continuity and the knowledge that Tyler has as a veteran?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, it's knowledge-based. I think it's knowledge-based and youth-based, a combination of both. I thought Higby went in there and played pretty -- pretty well from everything that was given to me and indicated to me. So he's first man up, but I would expect for Dobbs to possibly play, and you know, he's got to get ready to play. So there will be a little bit more sense of urgency, maybe, is what I would say.

You know, when you're playing, it's different. When you get in the game, all of a sudden everything becomes a little bit more important in practice. We're going to push the issue there a little bit, especially on the depth chart, so that they understand that.

We have not listed him on the depth chart in that capacity because we just haven't, but they have worked there as the twos, like I said, so they should be ready to go. We'll see. We'll see how it all shakes out.

Cole and AJ, probably remain the same. They are sort of day-to-day. Maybe Cole, they are both sort of day-to-day. I would just say right now, they are out, day-to-day. I don't think I listed them on the depth chart yet.

Q. Last week you had mentioned taking your girls to a Shania Twain concert and it was maybe one of the best concerts that you had been to. After the game I noticed that they were one of the first two people to greet you on the field after what would have been a tumultuous ending. How do they help you regroup in times like that to get you back on track or help you refocus?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think first of all, you'd better have a strong family unit, if you're going to be the head coach anywhere. That will always help. My two girls, and Becky, my wife, are my biggest supporters. They are going to be there in the toughest of times, just like I'm going to try and be and they are going to stand strong in that capacity, as well. And they have done a great job throughout their time, both Lauren and Kristen. They've seen some good, and they've seen some tough times, and that's the nature of it. They need to understand that their dad is okay, don't worry. That's my message to them all the time.

But yeah, they were there. They always will be.

Q. Seemed like a lot more two-back sets on Saturday. How would you assess that and how do you see that evolving going forward?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: You know, right now, I believe Elijah (Collins) got the majority of the carries and we'll work from there. I'm not going to sit there and say, hey, this guy is going to play or that guy is going to play.

We'll watch practice, try to make some decisions. I think Elijah is the lead back right now, but the other guys, they have all made a play here and there at certain points in times in their careers here.

Again, you're looking for consistency to be able to run through the smoke, run through and break tackles.

Q. I believe you just said we will address the issues. What do you see as the issues right now and how do you fix them?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, we need to be more productive. We need to score more points. I think we crossed the 50 seven times. We had I think seven (6) -- don't quote me on the number of drives with eight-plus plays, but over four, which is always your goal.

We had explosive plays, which is your goal. We only turned the ball over one time but it was a crucial turnover. It was in question, I guess, but it is what it is.

But you've got to be productive. You've got to make your field goals, get at least nine more points. You've got to drive the ball in the red zone and push it in for touchdowns. And then on the flipside of things, you know you've got to play well on fourth and 13. Get off the field on fourth-and-13. Hey, we were just talking about 10-7. We won a National Championship winning games 10-9, 14-10, 13-9.

So it's all grouped together. Everything's grouped together. It's not one-dimensional thing that says, 'oh, this is wrong completely.' You know, when people have an opportunity to make a play, or coach for a play, including myself, and I hold myself ultimately responsible, okay, then you've got to make a play.

And credit No. 5 (ASU QB Jayden Daniels), he made a play. But there were some things on that particular play on fourth-and-13 that could have been prevented, but the decision was made to play that particular defense at that particular time, right, wrong or indifferent.

Same thing could be said about the field goal. Same thing could be said about whether to take a shot at the end of the game. Believe me I'm trying to do everything I can, I'm out there with a stop watch every single pass play yesterday timing every single pass play. But there's a lot of different things that can happen on those pass plays that would lend you to say, oh, got sacked, or you know, ball's caught inbounds, you're not going to get another play off.

So there's a lot going on there, but you're trying to prevent the things that can be prevented. But it's all-inclusive. There is no one thing that you can say, well that, is ultimately the reason why we lost that football game. You can sit there and say we needed to score more points. That's sort of -- I think that's elementary, sort of. You have to score more than they score, but you could also make the case that, you know, fourth-and-13 on the 25, out of 10 times, how many are going to stop them with our defense. You can make that case, too.

So there's enough responsibility to go around, and we'll take responsibility for that and I will take responsibility, but there's a lot of things to fix, and it's game-to-game. Just like there's a lot of things that you can point towards and say, that was good, and that's game-to-game, too.

But you're just trying to coach it up, but the main thing, I guess the main message that I have is we are going to coach them up and we're going to make sure that we coach with energy this week. We are going to make sure that everybody is all in with energy and we are going to come to play. That's the first thing we have to do.

Q. When the Pac-12 issues a statement saying their officials erred on that last play, does that make you feel better or worse?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Well, the Pac-12 issues a statement, if they said the game gets forfeited, maybe I'd feel better. Other than that, I really don't care. It's sort of after the fact. It's sort of after the fact.

There's nothing I can do about that. I can't sit up here and go on and on about it, so I'm not going to. Everybody's got a job to do. I'm going to do my job to the best of my ability. They need to do their job to the best of their ability and call it as they see it. It they issued an apology, but that doesn't -- you know, it's sort of in the wind.

Q. You outlined your respect for Pat (Fitzgerald). Somebody said recently that every time there's a coach's event with Big Ten coaches, you and Pat somehow migrate together. What's the connection between you two?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: I think that in a lot of ways -- in a lot of ways, we think similar, I think in terms -- especially outside of the game, in terms of maybe administratively, you know, within coaching, in terms of maybe rules and things like that, and I've just got a lot of respect for him. He's very easy to talk to. He's done a great job leading. I think he leads with integrity and he's been a constant.

There's something to that. When you've been a constant, you've gone through the tough times and you've gone through the good times. There's something to be able to do that. I guess it's an admirable trait.

Q. You mentioned the offensive drives on some of them, seven, eight plays, not like you're going three-and-out every time but seems like there's one thing on every different drive. How do you widen your margin for error? How do you pin-point, with several things going on, but it can't be that one play decides the drive, how do you deal with that?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: That's coaching and that's execution. We're playing, performance-based or whatever it is. I'm here to tell you that we're not playing on air out there. We don't go out there and line up on air, which means that there's nobody in front of you.

You're playing against people that are prepared for your stuff, too. It's constant whether you're on offense or defense or special teams. There's an opposition to what you're doing and so you have to defeat the opposition. There's a lot that goes into that because the opposing team has good players, as well and you have to be able to defeat them.

So it's not perfect, what we have found is if you have explosive plays, that's your best way to score points long-term. It's very difficult to have an 18-play drive where something doesn't happen that sets you back.

So you've got to have explosive plays, which we had. We had a couple of them maybe taken away from a penalty or whatever, but I think we had seven big plays over -- big play passes over 20 yards, six of those and one big play run over 15, which is what we term as explosive.

So that usually leads to points, but then in the red zone, or prior to the red zone, you've got to make a play and we stalled out. Therein is the case for probably the loss, that and our inability -- we've been kicking good field goals. Our inability to I guess, execute, in those situations.

Q. There was a time early in your coaching career when Northwestern couldn't win three intrasquad games and now they have won three straight bowl games and took Ohio State into the fourth quarter last year. What does that say about the competitive balance in this league?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: The balance in this league is noticeable, especially when you're coaching. You can feel it every single week. People get ready to play you -- what it says about Northwestern is what I mentioned earlier; that Coach Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job there. Has his guys ready to play week-in and week-out and they are extremely competitive and they have raised that competitive level over the years.

But they have always been -- you know, it's always been a competitive game I think. You go back to '13, we might win the game 30-6, but it is competitive. Sometimes the scores get lost in the transition. A 10-point game to me is a competitive game. A 10-point win for the fans is not. It's different. It just depends on what seat you sit many and where you're at because you're looking at every little nuance I think as a coach. He's done a tremendous job. Their entire program has.

Q. Now they are in a facilities realm as everybody else.

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, they have got new facilities and that's something that, other people are pointing towards, as well and that's something that will be addressed here, as well, in the near future probably.

Q. How difficult is it for a defense when there is such a slim margin of error for them when one drive at the end after three and a half quarters of a game -- what are the challenges for the defensive players either mentally or physically?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Be perfect. That's the challenge. Be perfect. We gave up one deep ball on the 35 and that one deep ball puts them down on the 25 and that's difficult to stomach because that's -- may seem unfair, but, you know, you've got to play every play and everybody's got to -- it's a team game and you can't sit there and say, ‘what if,’ and ‘if only,’ because that separates people and we don't want to separate people. Ultimately, this is a team game. You win and lose together. And so that's what we have to do.

But yeah, you've got to play perfect. But like I just said, we won a National Championship at Ohio State by winning close games, low-scoring games. So it can be done. We must do things like that to win, and that's what we'll do.

But we're going to do what we've got to do. Only thing that I've ever asked from our players is to compete, play hard and play courageously, and that's what we are going to do and I don't see any indication that we are not doing that.

Q. You mentioned regrouping. Does it help to do that, that it's the Big Ten opener? Does it feel like a fresh start?

COACH MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, I've come in here and said, we go through phases here. Well, this is phase three now. Phase three started whether we won or lost. Everything else gets wiped away. If we were 3-0, it would be wiped away, too. Maybe not for the peripheral people, but in the big scheme of things, this game is more important than the last game and the next game will always be more important.

We play three out of the next four away. It's that part of the season where we've got to go on the road and be road warriors, so we have to take that chip, or whatever you want to say, with us and we have to make sure that we are ready -- we are prepared mentally, emotionally and mentally. Physically, too, but emotionally and mentally ready to play and we're going to do that.