- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team faces Alabama on Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl.
Check out Part I as well.
Linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon have been so good for you over the years. How important is their performance in a game like this?
Mark Dantonio: Our great players have to play great. Our players who are outstanding in their own right need to play at that level for us to be successful in this game. We can't have a substandard or an average performance by Greg Jones or Eric Gordon and expect to win. So this is about offense vs. defense, this is about individual matchups at times, this is about us measuring up. It's about the focus and us being emotionally ready.
Kirk [Cousins] was dealing with some injury issues late in the season. How is he health wise and how has he looked in practice?
MD: He looks very crisp, very healthy. Our offense has had great preparation, just like our defense. He looks very confident, and our offense, we'll see if we're clicking when game time comes.
B.J. Cunningham is out at receiver. Who do you look to fill that void in the game?
MD: Receiver has been a position of depth for us. When Keshawn Martin was out at one point, Bennie Fowler came on and had an outstanding game against Northwestern and has played himself into a pretty important role on our football team. Bennie Fowler will be the guy who will pick up the slack there with Keith Nichol. Keshawn Martin is fully healthy and Mark Dell is fully healthy. Those four guys will really handle it, and then Donald Spencer's had an excellent bowl preparation. We'll still go three deep at that position, so we're fine there, although we will miss B.J.'s leadership and his ability to catch the ball at the high point and make big plays. You're going to miss that, but somebody else is going to have to step up. I think you'll see big-play ability from Bennie Fowler.
Special teams has been such a big part of your season. How big of a factor is the kicking game in the bowl?
MD: Any time you look at a bowl game, it's much like any first game of the season. Special teams can win it for you or lose it for you, so we've got to be fundamentally sound there. Tackling in space and those things show up on special teams as well as defense, so we've got to be perfect in all phases. When you look at it, I can think of four games where special teams have won it for us, with the fake field goal [against Notre Dame], the situation at Northwestern, the blocked punt [against Purdue], the punt return [against Wisconsin]. There's four games right there. A fifth game would be when [kicker] Dan Conroy's 4-for-4 [on field goals] against Illinois. So they've been very, very important to us. We put a premium on our special teams, and our guys are going to have to come and play because Alabama does much of the same.
Is there anything you can take away from being in this game a couple of years ago? You played pretty well but didn't get it done against Georgia.
MD: We probably have about 30 guys on our team that were from our '08 football season. That carried us in the Penn State game, the final game of this year. We played in a championship-type setting in '08 where if we win, we're co-champions. In 2010, we played much better [at Penn State] and we win the football game. A lot can be said for that experience breeding success. We've had the experience of being down here before. Many of our players being in positions of leadership have been here, played in this game. We played pretty well against Georgia, we had opportunities to win the football game but faded away a little bit in the fourth quarter. We can't afford to do that. We need to play this game close. Again, emotionally measure up, emotionally be ready, and physically, we're going to have to play at the height of our game.
What would it mean as a coach to finish this season off with a win?
MD: I don't really look at things as a coach, I look at things collectively. This has been a special football season for us. Whenever we've needed to play, someone different has stepped up. Whenever we've needed someone to step in when leadership was thrust upon someone else, an assistant coach would step up. Don Treadwell stepped up, Pat Narduzzi, whoever was asked. That's the kind of the season it's been. So collectively, we're an 11-1 group of people that will remember this season for the rest of their lives because of the way it's shaken out. This would certainly put the icing on the cake if we could win this football game. This has been a special season, and now we'll have an opportunity to compete with what I think is one of the finest football teams and most well-coached football teams in this country. It'll be a challenge, but again, it'll be an opportunity, too.