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 review preseason camp and preview MSU's season opener against Tulsa on Friday night at Spartan Stadium.
No. 18/20 Michigan State kicks off its 123rd season of football against Tulsa on Friday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. in Spartan Stadium. The game will be televised on FS1. The Spartans are looking to win their 21st consecutive home opener and improve to 12-1 in season openers under 13th-year head coach Mark Dantonio. Friday is also MSU's annual "Stripe the Stadium" game (even and student sections: green; odd sections: white).
Michigan State's streak of 20 straight wins in its home opener, which began in 1999 against Oregon, is tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the country (Florida, 29; Wisconsin and Oklahoma State, 23; Illinois, 21; Arizona State and MSU, 20). MSU is 101-21 (.82) all-time in home openers, including 12-0 under Dantonio.
Friday's game marks the first-ever meeting between Michigan State and Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are led by fifth-year head coach Philip Montgomery, who is 21-29 in his first four seasons at Tulsa. He led Tulsa to back-to-back bowl appearances in his first two years in 2015 (Independence Bowl) and 2016 (Miami Beach Bowl), including a 10-3 record in 2016. Prior to his arrival at Tulsa, Montgomery was the offensive coordinator at Baylor from 2008-14 (co-OC/QB/RB from 2008-11; OC/QB from 2012-14).
Michigan State has plenty of experience returning in 2019, as a total of 50 letterwinners and 17 position starters are back for the Spartans. A total of 37 players returning have starting experience (17 offense, 14 defense, six special teams). Out of a combined 286 possible starting positions in 2018 on offense and defense throughout the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 212 of those starts (74 percent). MSU's 17 position starters returning rank tied for second most in the FBS and the 20 starters overall, including three specialists (P, PK, LS), rank tied for first in the country.
Now in his 13th season as head coach of the Spartans, Mark Dantonio [msuspartans.com] owns a 107-51 (.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).
The second-winningest coach in school history with 107 victories, trailing only Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty (109), 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 (63) 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.
On defense, the Spartans return 20 letterwinners and eight starters from a unit that finished ranked No. 1 in the FBS in rushing defense (77.9 ypg), No. 8 in scoring defense (17.2 ppg) and No. 10 in total defense (303.2 ypg). Out of a possible 143 starting positions last season over the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 105 of those starts (73 percent). Five of those eight returning starters started in all 13 games last season (LB Joe Bachie [msuspartans.com], S David Dowell [msuspartans.com], DT Mike Panasiuk [msuspartans.com], NT Raequan Williams [msuspartans.com], DE Kenny Willekes [msuspartans.com]), while linebacker Tyriq Thompson [msuspartans.com] started 12 games and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk [msuspartans.com] started 11 games.
The Spartans welcome nine starters back on offense, including two-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke [msuspartans.com], leading rusher Connor Heyward [msuspartans.com] and the top two receiving leaders in Darrell Stewart and Cody White [msuspartans.com]. MSU returns 100 percent of its passing yards from the quarterback position, 81 percent of its rushing yards and 76 percent of its receiving yards. Out of a possible 143 starting positions last season over the course of 13 games, the Spartans are returning 107 of those starts (75 percent).
The following is a transcript from Tuesday's press conference:
HEAD COACH MARK DANTONIO: Good morning, guys.
First game, a lot of optimism I think everywhere across the country right now. We're very excited about the opportunities in front of us this year. Certainly first game of the season brings out a lot of excitement for the fans, a night game in Spartan Stadium, should be rocking and everything. Should be an exciting time.
Tulsa comes in with Phil Montgomery as head coach, this is his fifth year. Has a history with Baylor, he was the offensive coordinator in 2014. There's that Baylor component, no question about that. It's his fifth year there. I'm sure they'll be ready to go.
From a preparation standpoint, you go all the way through camp, you think you've got a lot of time. All of a sudden the next thing you know, you're three days away from game time. There's so much that goes into it.
When you look at us in any first-game situation, I think you want to make sure that you're playing fast, no unforced errors, especially in the special teams area, and ball security is so important in every football game, especially in the first football game.
We've tackled a lot throughout our history here really in practice. You hope that that pays dividends at this point in time.
From the standpoint of personnel with Tulsa, offensively, again, I think there's a Baylor component there, a lot of RPOs (run pass option), things of that nature.
Two outstanding running backs, one had almost 900 yards last year (Corey Taylor II), one almost a thousand (Shamari Brooks). They've been very productive running the football. Zach Smith [msuspartans.com], their quarterback, is a transfer from Baylor. He sat out last year at Tulsa, so he's prepared to go. (Keylon) Stokes is their wide receiver, number two, probably their lead guy.
Punter is an outstanding punter. Thomas Bennett, averaged over 46 yards a punt (last year). He's a Ray Guy finalist from last year. I believe his father was an NFL punter (Darren Bennett), so he's been well-schooled.
Defensively they'll run a 3-3-5, with five defensive backs throughout, drop down guys at times. They've been very good against the pass. We'll look to work towards that. Joe Gillespie has taken over as the defensive coordinator there.
Bill Young, a long time college football coach, retired in January, so we wish him the best. He has some history in the Big Ten at Ohio State.
We're three days out, excited to play. I'll take some questions.
Q. Looking at the offensive line depth chart for you guys, Cole Chewins [msuspartans.com] is not there. Is there an injury long-term or anything other?
MARK DANTONIO: He struggled with his back here throughout preseason. Right now he's sort of on a day-to-day basis, we'll see where he's at. We do anticipate he'll be able to play at some point. He has had some time off here as of late.
Q. So he won't play this week?
MARK DANTONIO: He won't play this week.
Q. Connor (Heyward) I believe, is the only number one on your depth chart as running back. How do you see that situation?
MARK DANTONIO: Pretty fluid. I see that running back situation very fluid. Guys are going to get opportunities especially in the first game of the season. Connor has had a good summer camp, been impressed with really all of our running backs in summer camp. They've adapted to some of the new things, been able to retain other things. So we'll see how they play.
Q. I was going to ask about Brandon Wright [msuspartans.com] as well. He is the newest guy, probably seen the least of him. Is that a guy you'd expect to get a couple opportunities here in September?
MARK DANTONIO: We'll see how the game flows. We'll see how he's going.
Q. You mentioned things you want to accomplish in the opener. I assume the offensive struggles last year, do you get a sense that the guys on that side of the ball want to come out and move on from what last year was, try to do something positive?
MARK DANTONIO: The message to our football team is: It's game day, game time. I don't care if you bench 400 pounds, or run a 4.5, or 36 vertical inches. I don't care if you are a preseason All-American. I don't care if you had a tough year last year. It's time to get ready to play. Our mindset has to be 'let's go.'
That's where we're at right now. That's the mindset that we're in. That's where we're going with this.
Got good players. Got a lot of guys back with experience. We should play fast and know exactly what we're doing and bring it on Friday night.
Q. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the offensive line. Obviously, a change at left tackle. You had some freshmen that have had good camps. Is there a chance that any of those guys play early on?
MARK DANTONIO: There's a chance. There's a chance that anyone of our guys who are dressed are going to play. We worked a lot of guys in different situations from an offensive line perspective around different positions. There are some freshmen that are very talented, Devontae Dobbs [msuspartans.com], J.D. DuPlain and Nick Samac [msuspartans.com] have done a nice job. They're working in there. We'll see whether they play or not.
For me to sit here and say they're definitely going to play, I'm not going to make that statement. They're doing some good things. Got a couple other guys that are in the hunt as well.
Q. What did AJ (Arcuri) do to kind of separate himself there?
MARK DANTONIO: He's been athletic. He's adapted well to the left tackle position. He's a big, strong guy. Almost 6-6, 300 pounds or so. He's learned that position. I think he could play across the board probably any position with the exception of center.
Q. Traditionally any changes you've made in the offseason, you don't like to show early, like to wait for Big Ten. Because it's been a revamping so much, has it put you into a juxtaposition, how much you want to show or don't?
MARK DANTONIO: I'm going to say what Coach Perles has always said: They all count one. 1-0 is 1-0 any way you cut it. We're going to make sure we do what we got to do to win a football game. We're going to play, so...
We will be who we are. Obviously after the first game, you make some decisions and you move on from there personnel-wise, what you're doing. There's always a sense of change as you go through the season depending on everything that's going on.
Football is a very fluid I think sport. A lot of things going on offensively, defensively, special teams. A lot of guys playing. A lot of different guys getting opportunities, getting nicked up along the way. We can get ourselves ready to go. Looking forward to play.
Q. You mentioned that Baylor component, (Tulsa head coach) Philip Montgomery coached against you in the Cotton Bowl. How similar of a prep is this, particularly in terms of what they do up front?
MARK DANTONIO: 2014 has been some time. They're going to be tempo offense. They're going to line up there, they may be running again 10 and 15 seconds a play at times. You got to be prepared for that, which we have prepared for that very hard. We played teams like that throughout.
But I anticipate a lot of RPOs, they're going to try to run the football. Everybody wants to run the football. I don't think there's anybody that says, 'Hey, we don't want to run it.' So we've got to be able to do that.
Also must be able to play the benders and the deep ball in the deep part of the field, tackle well. We've sen that already in the first game of the season. You got to be able to tackle well.
Q. What does Jalen Nailor [msuspartans.com] bring to the punt return game?
MARK DANTONIO: He's got great speed, he's got great hands back there. I think he's an aggressive type player that will try and make something happen.
Q. Along with that, (Darrell) Stewart back in the kick return game. What did you see from him? Do you plan on having both of those guys back there at once to maybe add some dimension to the return game?
MARK DANTONIO: We're not going to talk about schematics. I think Darrell is an outstanding football player. He brings a dynamic to the kicking game as well. He's returned kicks and punts in the past. We look for him to have a great year.
Q. As you get older in your career, what is the significance or can you describe the feeling on opening night, what that means to you? When the ball is kicked off, you're focusing on execution. Taking the field with your team, what does that mean for you?
MARK DANTONIO: I think every year, it's interesting, I get a note from Brian Hoyer's father every single year about what this is all about, opening day, being at Michigan State. To be honest with you, I'm still humbled in that respect in terms of going out there on opening day, and running out there.
Even though we've been here 13 years, going on 13, it's still the same type of feeling. You get ready to go. There's anxiety, there's emotion, there's excitement. You want to make sure everything is right. When the ball is kicked off, you need to be ready to go. That's what we're going to do as a staff, as a football team, and me for myself.
It's still exciting. It's exciting to run out in Spartan Stadium. People wait all their lives to do that, so we'll take it.
Q. The night games are no longer a novelty. Do you sense an air of excitement when they open the season on a Friday night under the lights when it seems like everybody in town is going to the game?
MARK DANTONIO: Yeah, you know, I think every time you play at night, it brings back a little bit of the high school mentality you had growing up, whether you're coaching or playing. It's just exciting. A little bit more exciting.
I think, I don't know, I've got a countdown clock in the locker room. We're waiting. We're trying to get through these three days. But it is exciting. Should be very exciting for our fans, as well.
Q. Tyler Higby [msuspartans.com] looks like he's back in the starting lineup. A few weeks ago you said he might not be back till late August. Can you talk about his progress?
MARK DANTONIO: He's played pretty much throughout. Got back after about a week of camp. He's been involved, has played. He's played well. Again, another guy that is a fifth-year senior. Looking to have a great year from him. He's anticipating that, as well.
Q. I know you said you're still humbled, you have said a lot of people are part of this, it's not just you. When you see the name Duffy Daugherty everywhere, and know what he means to this program, know at some point this year you probably become the winningest coach in this program, do you ever take a second and think about what you've accomplished in these first 12 years here with this program?
MARK DANTONIO: I think, yeah, you take a second, might take two. But I go back to what I said before. I look at all the players that have come through here, made plays. Some outstanding moments in that time. That's, again, why we're trying to chase the moment.
A lot of coaches. A lot of administrators. A lot of donors. A lot of different people that have been involved in this process.
I think that's what you get when you have continuity in the program, you have opportunities like this coming here. So we came here with an opportunity to try and make a mark. That's what we're trying to do.
We've been very prominent I think in this decade. It's important to finish this decade in that way, in that fashion.
What I've always tried to do is win one game at a time collectively as a group. I've always tried to push people in front, get them to move in one direction. That's what you have to do. So I don't really think too much about it because I'm usually so busy with all the other things that goes with it.
I think it's a sense of accomplishment for a lot of people. It's not just one person. That's the best thing I can say about it.
Q. You mentioned about Tulsa's speed, how quickly they snap, this is one of those games you're going to need the depth in the defense. When you look at those young guys behind the starters, you got a little bit younger in the two deep. How ready are they and what things do you have to prepare them, especially for a tempo-based offense?
MARK DANTONIO: We talk a little bit about 'the fog of war.' Everything is planned out, all of a sudden things hit and things change. There's a sense of confusion.
I do think that we have a lot of players back. I do also think there's going to be players out there playing a role, a major role, for the first time, so it's important they come and they settle themselves, they stay cognizant of what's going on and have a good direction.
It's all about the control of their attention. Can they stay focused? Or are they going to start thinking about the crowd, start thinking about all these things, not do their job. The bottom line is do your job, do it fast, know what you're doing. I think our players do know what they're doing. They're poised to make an impact.
I think every one of our players want to make an impact out there. The big key is I think don't be afraid, keep pushing, push things forward. If you're going to make mistakes, make them full go.
Q. You mentioned earlier with the offense you guys are going to be who you are during the game. Without giving away scheme, if I ask what does that mean, who are you guys offensively this year?
MARK DANTONIO: We won't talk about scheme (laughing).
Q. Is the look and feel different?
MARK DANTONIO: Won't be in the T (laughing).
Q. You talked about their offense a little bit, the backs they return, their top two rushers. One of their guys says their weekly goal is hundred yards apiece, five yards a carry. Break down that matchup, your guys, what they want to accomplish.
MARK DANTONIO: We don't want to let people run the ball on us. People have not been able to do that recently. We need to continue that trend. Again, it will be a challenge. There's certain things that go into this. They run a draw. They do a nice job with their draw game on third down and things of that nature. They have broken out some before, the inside zone. They run a lot of different running concepts, inside zone, outside zone is prominent.
But they've been successful. We're going to have to see how it all shakes out. Be interesting to watch.
Q. What is one or maybe more things that for all you guys did in camp that you can't really learn or know in camp? What is something that you personally are looking forward to seeing how this unfolds in a real game setting, what would that be, the big unknown?
MARK DANTONIO: We've been productive in camp offensively. We need to be productive in games. I don't think there's any big secret there.
It's the first game of the year. I mean, you've got guys that have done tremendous things last year, on the defensive side of the ball in particular. You've got some very productive players, but you're starting over. You're starting from scratch.
To me it's always a little bit about, 'Okay, who are we this year? Who are we? What are we going to become? Which direction are we going? How are things playing out? What young players are going to get involved?'
There's a lot of things you have to answer as you move forward in this part of the season. We sort of break the season up in phases. We've gone through first phase, that's August camp. We're doing to our phase two which is these first three games. We'll find out a lot about our football team in these first three games. It's a focus for us.
Q. Coach Montgomery talked about the inability to kind of prepare for you guys in terms of not knowing what the changes may or may not be, how things are going to maybe philosophically change. For you as a coach, have you had such a tightly guarded secret like this? And secondly, what are the schematic edges from your standpoint to keeping everything under wraps?
MARK DANTONIO: I think everyone wants to try to keep everything a little bit behind the curtain so people don't prepare for you. Everything is about practicing for your opponent, trying to simulate what they do. That's usually the way things work, both sides of the ball and special teams. History is the best indicator of the future, things of that nature. You want to try and guard against those type of things, especially when you've made a couple changes.
We're just trying to stay the course. I don't think to come up here and talk about things before they happen is the way to go about it. Just sort of do what we do.
Q. Have you had any changesthat you can remember like this, keeping this close to the vest?
MARK DANTONIO: I'm sure there's been one, I don't know, I guess 'Little Giants' (laughing).
Q. La'Darius Jefferson [msuspartans.com] last year, was a young player in a new position. What strides have you seen out of him this summer so far? How challenging is that transition overall for a young player?
MARK DANTONIO: La'Darius has done a nice job. As a running quarterback, which he was, there is a transition that you have to make moving to a running back position, especially blocking people and things of that nature.
But he's a physical guy. He was an outstanding linebacker, as well. He'll put his pads on you. I think he's had a great fall camp. I think Connor Heyward [msuspartans.com] has as well and Elijah Collins [msuspartans.com] has as well, I've seen a lot of good things.
It takes time. These guys are all relatively young players. Connor is a junior, but he played the most last year. So these are young players, you're waiting for them to bust out. This is their opportunity to make some strides. We're going to go from there.
It will be interesting to see how some of these other young players play as well. They'll have their opportunities as we go.
Q. Tight end Matt Seybert [msuspartans.com] looks like he's climbing the depth chart. I imagine tight end, is that an area of concern with depth there? How is the backup situation?
MARK DANTONIO: Tight end situation, all four of those guys have played in this fall camp. I think Trenton GIllison has a lot of ability, he's one of those young guys that will see the field really for the first time. Dotson is an improved player. Noah Davis [msuspartans.com] is a guy that has played for us in the past. Max Rosenthal [msuspartans.com] is also a guy. So we've got five guys that are fluid in there depending on what we're doing, what personnel groupings we're at.
Q. A lot of teams have mentioned, especially early in the season matchups like this, tempo is the equalizer against your defense over the years. Is there anything other than rotating multiple units quickly in practice, any special magic or secret sauce you've learned about defending that type of tempo?
MARK DANTONIO: Through the Big Ten, I think it's one thing to practice for it. I think it's another thing to play in the game. You have to get used to the tempo you're getting in the game.
We have worked a lot against it. We've run three huddles against it, stopwatch, run a play every 10 seconds. We've done things like that. We've always done things like that to prepare for it.
Ultimately it's our level of conditioning, how are we going to condition, then the ability to sub in and out. I think that's pretty standard information for everybody.
If you don't get a first down in three, you're off the field in about 40 seconds so that's not good either.
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