From a mental standpoint, have you asked the guys to approach this bowl as a road game?
â€œYes, itâ€™s definitely a road game because we know the majority of fans there Saturday night will be there supporting Texas Tech. More importantly, itâ€™s more like an opening game because weâ€™ve had such a long time to prepare. Weâ€™ve kind of gone through the dog days of summer somewhat with those additional December practice dates prior to Christmas break, and we worked the players pretty hard. We have tackled some over the last five weeks but not at game speed and in space against a quality opponent. So from my perspective, it closely resembles a season-opening road game.â€
Special teams often play an important role in season-opening games, so you have to feel comfortable knowing that you have two veterans handling the kicking chores, in Brett Swenson and Aaron Bates?
â€œWe feel good about Brett Swenson and Aaron Bates, but thereâ€™s so much more to special teams play than just those two guys. We have to attack and tackle in space. Texas Tech has excellent special teams. Weâ€™ve been very impressed with Texas Techâ€™s kickoff returners Eric Stephens and Edward Britton. This is an opponent that plays with great energy and effort on special teams, and we have to be able to match that.â€
Time of possession has been an important key for Michigan State the last three seasons (MSU is 15-3 when leading in time of possession during Coach Dantonioâ€™s tenure, including a perfect 5-0 in 2009). So with the explosiveness of Texas Techâ€™s offense, how important will it be for the offensive line to create some running room?
â€œWe have to be able to control the football, but more importantly, we have to be able to score. We have to be able to control the tempo of the game somewhat and limit their opportunities. Texas Tech has a very explosive offense, averaging 380 yards passing per game. Itâ€™s a team that will take some chances, including going for it on fourth down at times. So itâ€™s going to be important for us to keep the time of possession in our favor, but thatâ€™s easier said than done.â€
Talk about the progress that the freshmen running backs Larry Caper and Edwin Baker have made this season.
â€œThe two freshmen running backs have done an unbelievable job, especially when you look at their grades in pass protection. A running back at this level must be able to pass protect and give the quarterback an opportunity to throw the ball down field. At this level, they see a variety of different pressures and blitzes coming at them. In addition, theyâ€™ve learned a variety of pass protections as well. So theyâ€™ve done an outstanding job of putting all of those things together. In addition, theyâ€™ve been productive when given opportunities to run with the football.
â€œWe have to have some explosive running plays in this game, and theyâ€™re both capable of producing big plays. So when thereâ€™s a crease, theyâ€™ve go to break loose. Theyâ€™re both excited about playing in this bowl game.
â€œWith the additional bowl practices, weâ€™ve been able to reaffirm some things with them, and at this point in the year, theyâ€™re a little bit more like sophomores than they are freshmen. Thereâ€™s a big difference in what they can provide now than what they could provide do three and four games into this season.â€
Itâ€™s been about a week since the team practiced in full pads. Were you pleased with todayâ€™s energy level and effort? And how about the playersâ€™ retention?
â€œYes, I was very, very pleased with todayâ€™s practice. We had a good run yesterday. It looks like guys stayed in shape over the Christmas break. It was a beautiful day for practice, and we got a lot of work done.
â€œThere has been good retention. Weâ€™re 10 practices into our Texas Tech preparation, so thereâ€™s retention there. Itâ€™s just a matter of how quickly it came back to them after the holiday layoff. Theyâ€™ve had a lot of information thrown at them, and theyâ€™ve been able to get that information back to us immediately on both sides of the football. The bottom line is that we have to execute and play with great fundamentals on game day. We also need to play fast and with excitement. Obviously, there are certain situations that we have to win on game day, and the ball has to bounce our way some too. The key thing is that we have to be focused and ready to play mentally and I think we will. In addition, we need to have our legs up underneath us.â€
Is a bowl game almost a season in itself?
â€œA bowl game is almost a season in itself. After todayâ€™s workout, I told the seniors that we have only three practices left together. They need to put their best foot forward, so they can put themselves in a position to close out their careers as winners. The last game is always a big indicator of where youâ€™re at (as a program) just in terms of how you play. Weâ€™ve been competitive in the last two bowl games (vs. Boston College in 2007 Champs Sports Bowl and vs. Georgia in 2009 Capital One Bowl), but we didnâ€™t quite get the job done. We had opportunities to win both of those games. So we look forward to the opportunity and challenge of playing Texas Tech.
â€œFor the returning players, thereâ€™s also definitely a carryover effect into next season. By the end of the bowl preparation, we will have had 15 additional practices, so weâ€™ve been able to work on a lot on fundamentals. Hopefully, all of that fundamental work shows up on Saturday (against Texas Tech). Â
â€œItâ€™s also a game in itself because we havenâ€™t played a game in five weeks. So in a lot of ways, itâ€™s like a season-opening game. With that long of a layoff, you donâ€™t know how your guys are going to tackle in space or how well theyâ€™re going to catch the ball in a crowd. Thatâ€™s why we went live (full contact) in practice today. Thereâ€™s always risk (of injury) involved, but we made it through today without injury. So thatâ€™s a good thing.â€
Two unsung heroes this season have been Keshawn Martin and Eric Gordon. During the second half of the season, Keshawn really exploded onto the scene, while Eric has been remarkably consistent and productive. Talk about their emergence as key players on this yearâ€™s team.
â€œObviously, you noticed Keshawn Martin last year as a true freshman, but this year, heâ€™s been a consistent playmaker. Heâ€™s made big plays as a pass receiver, kick returner, ball carrier and thrower. Keshawn is an excellent football player because of his speed and explosiveness. Heâ€™s also definitely a gamer. Keshawn is going to be a great player for us for two more years.
â€œAll of our linebackers run well â€“ under 4.6 (in the 40) â€“ and Eric Gordon is definitely in that neighborhood. Eric is a good football player, and heâ€™s had an outstanding year; however, he often gets overlooked because people focus on Greg Jonesâ€™ stats. Eric is very active in our defensive scheme, and he needs to have a great game for us against Texas Tech on Saturday.â€