Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio didn’t hesitate when asked how James Franklin has been able to get No. 6 Penn State playing at such a high level this season.
First and foremost, Dantonio said, the Nittany Lions (7-0) have closed out the tight games.
“When I look at their football team right now, they have closed out three games,” Dantonio said Tuesday, ahead of Saturday’s tilt with PSU. “They closed out the Pitt game. ... The Iowa game; they closed it out with first downs at the end of the game. When things started to get tight, they closed it out. Same thing in the Michigan game.”
Each of those wins for Penn State was decided by a touchdown or less. And, while the defense stepped up against Pitt, the offense came on late against Iowa and Michigan to seal the games.
Dantonio pointed to wideout KJ Hamler and running back Noah Cain as the catalysts there.
“In their tight games, they have made plays, and I look at the two guys that made them,” he said. “Hamler makes two of the plays in the last game. But they sort of tailback-by-committee a little bit with (Noah) Cain being a guy, No. 21, a guy that maybe he’s the guy they want to focus on, maybe not. .... I think that’s what they have done.”
Traditionally, Dantonio said, closing out games has been a strength of his Spartans (4-3). So Saturday’s matchup could be an interesting one.
The Nittany Lions travel to East Lansing, Michigan, for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday against Sparty. Excluding last week’s bye, it’s Michigan State’s third straight contest against a top-10 team. But Dantonio is 4-1 vs. Franklin at Penn State.
Here’s everything else Dantonio said Tuesday about the Penn State Nittany Lions:
(Opening statement on overall thoughts on Penn State)
When you look at Penn State, Coach Franklin has done a great job there thus far. Offensively, Sean Clifford, their quarterback, is playing at a high level. Offensive line, I believe three guys are back. Tight end is No. 87 (Pat Freiermuth). K.J. Hamler, No. 1, is a guy that to stop Penn State, you have to first and foremost stop him. Outstanding player and makes things happen. Also on special teams, he’s making things happen, as well as the kickoff returner, punt returner.
When you look at them defensively, again, you see top-10 type components of their defense; two defensive ends, (Yetur) Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, two guys that give them speed off the edge. Linebackers, (Micah) Parsons and (Cam) Brown, very, very active guys; three guys coming back in the secondary. So there will be a challenge on that side of the ball, as well.
But we’ve played well. With all that being said, we’ve played well against them and we’ve played, found a way to win the last two years. So should be an exciting game to watch. It’s an opportunity to step forward and reset.
(On recruiting KJ Hamler and whether a playmaker like him is missing from the MSU lineup)
KJ is a guy that was coming off a knee injury his senior year. We offered him; recruited him hard and all that. He was at Orchard Lake and went to IMG. Really like KJ as a person, as well.
But he’s been a dynamic player for them, especially the last couple years. I think us losing Jalen Nailor for a time period is a guy like that. But KJ has been extremely productive. We look for that type of production from our guys, as well.
So I guess the answer to your question, we are getting some plays out of some of our guys, Darrell Stewart and different things, but KJ is a guy that’s been electrifying thus far, and has been a guy that can go the distance. So we’ve got to play.
(On his recent success against Penn State and how they match up)
Well, they have all been — pretty much I think they have all been relatively close. I think ‘15 and ‘16 were not, even though in both of those games, the game was relatively close at halftime or after, even in ‘15, and then things happened with turnovers, or whatever the case, and those games got out of hand a little bit. But prior to that, they have been close games.
I don’t know; I think they enjoy coming and playing in our atmosphere, and we enjoy going and playing in theirs, quite frankly. I think our guys got up for it, and we just try and take a positive approach to them as I said earlier, and we play well against them. Our confidence should be there.
You have to make plays on the field, and you have to have a plan that works and all that kind of stuff, so it’s all comprehensive. I don’t know if I can answer that question other than we’ve won the last two, and I think we are 4-1 in the last five games. So need to build on that and try and be 5-1.
(On the keys to beating Penn State)
We’ve got to play well, and we have to limit explosive — you say, how are you going to beat Penn State? Limit the explosive plays, have to protect our quarterback, cannot turn the ball over and have to get some takeaways. It’s all basically broken down into that certain aspect. Every football game is like that. Have to be able to run the ball and be productive. Have to come up with some production.
There’s always these different factors that enter into it. You have to win some of those factors.
(On James Franklin and what he’s done to help Penn State get to this point)
When I look at their football team right now, they have closed out three games. They closed out the Pitt game. They closed out — but with Pitt still being able to have a possibility at the end. The Iowa game, they closed it out with first downs at the end of the game; when things started to get tight, they closed it out.
Same thing in the Michigan game. When things started to get tight, they closed it out. They were able to get that first down, run out the clock or get that score ... to go from 21-14 to 28-14.
But in their tight games, they have made plays, and I look at that and two guys that made them; Hamler makes two of the plays in the last game. But they sort of tailback by committee a little bit with (Noah) Cain being a guy, No. 21, that is probably the guy they want to focus on, maybe not. All their guys have some big runs in there when you look at all the different film.
I think that’s what they have done. When you win and you start winning close games, you start to have a belief in that. We’ve made a living on those type of situations around here in the past. Close games, we’ve won. So not just in the Penn State rivalry, or contest, but I think across the board we’ve been able to do that at times when we’ve had our great seasons.
(On what he got from watching Michigan claw its way back against Penn State in the second half)
Yeah, absolutely. You look at everything anybody does that they have success and you try to emulate that. I thought they did a great job getting back in the game and trying to push through.
I think there’s a message there, down 21-0, they fought back. That’s a team trait, and they got back in the game. If anything, I thought that tide sort of turned a little bit in the second half as they came back.
Then again, as I said earlier, you have to credit Penn State for closing it out at the end. They found a way, as well. It was a great football game to watch.