Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Scottsdale, Arizona

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State football into a force to be reckoned with. Inheriting a program in November of 2006 that had a 39-46 record under three different coaches since 2000, Dantonio quickly turned the ship around in East Lansing. Sporting a 50-28 record since he took over the helm, the respected head coach has made Michigan State a top destination for both fans and top-notch recruits.

But in 2012, Dantonio’s squad ran into a wall, falling to 6-6. Adversity came in the form of inexperience at key positions on offense and injuries to the offensive line, dashing pre-season Rose Bowl hopes. But Dantonio managed to lead his team into a bowl game, and has prepared them for a showdown with TCU. After a recent practice, the veteran coach talked to the media about a number of topics, including the emergence of talented youngster Lawrence Thomas and preparations for the matchup with the Horned Frogs.

The upcoming Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl matchup with TCU will be the 17th bowl game that Dantonio has coached in his career, his sixth with the Spartans. Some of those games have been icing on the cake after a great season and some have determined how a season has been viewed by historians. When asked which function this bowl game will serve, Dantonio said: “We talked a lot about this bowl game sort of being a legacy for our seniors… We’ve only got nine seniors with [Fou] Fonoti and [Tyler] Hoover coming back next year, so we have a young football team and it gives us an opportunity to sort of move forward in 2013,” the MSU head coach said. “We’re going to live on this game for the next eight months, there’s no question about that. We saw it happen last year with the Outback Bowl, we’ve also seen in the past how it’s gone when we haven’t done so well in bowl games.”

Preparation is always critical heading into a bowl game. Dantonio knows this showdown with the 7-5 Horned Frogs is no different. “I think it’s important that we’re ready to play and we’re focused and not just ready to play physically, but also mentally,” Dantonio said. “We’ll keep our guys fresh and go down there. We’re not down there long, in terms of practice time, so before you know it, we’ll be playing.”

One interesting part of the game plan for TCU is the installation of designed quarterback runs. The Spartans have been planning for the possibility that Maxwell will be on the run against TCU, but the MSU coaching staff may or may not utilize it, depending on how well practice goes in the days leading up to the bowl game. When asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the measure thus far, Dantonio said in response: “Everything offensively, and really defensively and in special teams, it’s always about execution, especially in bowl games. The team that executes the best, the team that does not turn the football over, doesn’t make mistakes, can tackle in space, plays great fundamentals, is usually the team that comes out on top. What we have to do I think is work within our foundation, get some wrinkles – offensively and defensively – change a little bit, but then be able to move forward,” the coach went on. “From where I’m at, we’ve done some live quarterback drills with tackling and running the football, so we’ll see how it all works. But it’s gotta be the right time, the right fit.”

One topic that has been highlighted by the media, and in interviews with a number of Spartans, is the idea of allowing hits on quarterbacks. As Dantonio mentioned, the coaching staff decided to implement the change in an attempt to mix things up a bit. In general, Dantonio said, “We tried to do drills, as much as anything, where they would get more than one rep, for all of our players.” One reason for the new philosophy? “It’s important that we hang on to the football and I think it’s also important that we try to rip the football out. Those are two things you have to do offensively and defensively. So we sort of constructed drills relative to that, whether it was with our quarterbacks or with our tailbacks or wideouts, and went live with them,” Dantonio explained. There was some apprehension in deciding to turn to the unorthodox move. The MSU coaching staff took a risk in utilizing the tactic, but so far it has paid off. “There’s a little bit of a ‘Catch 22’ on that because you’re a little bit nervous when you have to work like that…We held our breath a little bit, we made it through,” Dantonio said. “They were impressive running the football with [Andrew Maxwell], [Connor] Cook, and Tyler O’Connor: they were all very impressive… They’re all 215 pounds or more and they’ve all got good athletic ability, so it’s just a matter of them putting that in game speed.”

Rated as the fifth best inside linebacker in the 2011 recruiting class by Rivals, Lawrence Thomas entered Michigan State with high expectations. After injuring his shoulder his freshman year, Thomas moved to defensive line during spring practice. But after injuries depleted the fullback position, the talented athlete was moved to the position early in the season. After a solid 2012 campaign, Dantonio has high hopes for the redshirt freshman. In fact, he sees Thomas as a two-way player. “LT will definitely play at defensive tackle and probably at fullback,” Dantonio said. When asked to clarify his statement as to whether Thomas will play fullback against TCU, the head coach said: “Thomas will play both in the game. I think he’s got the ability to do that, and he’s been impressive at the defensive line position. He’s an athlete, very athletic. He’s a redshirt freshman, it’s just a matter of him getting used to the position he’s in,” Dantonio said.

Though Thomas did not play on the defensive line during the regular season, Dantonio feels comfortable with placing Thomas at the position. “He’s repped at both sides, and more defensively this bowl practice. We felt like we needed to get him up to speed offensively throughout the season, and now this is an opportunity to take that defensive aspect and put it into use,” the veteran coach stated. “He’s powerful, he’s 290 pounds, he’s got great feet, he’s got great balance, he shoots his hands. The thing that you have is a guy we recruited here as a linebacker…who can run like a linebacker, and can play up front for us. He can play defensive end, he can play defensive tackle… he can be in there in some different types of situations as well.”

Right now, Dantonio and the MSU coaching staff plan on rotating Thomas with junior TyQuan Hammock at fullback and with senior Tyler Hoover at defensive tackle. Regardless of how much playing time the young stud gets, Dantonio sees a bright future for Thomas. “He’s a guy who can do a lot of different things for us, and he’s going to be a great player for us in the future.”

Joe Ginley is the newest writer for the Spartan Nation website and magazine. He writes Spartans in the NFL and State of the Spartans among other articles. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe brings a great passion for sports and a great flexibility in writing skills.

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