December 27, 2011

Spartans hit the heat in Tampa

During Monday's Outback Steakhouse Team Welcome Dinner in Tampa, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio emphasized the championship bullets on each team's resume during his brief address at the event.

"We have so many times to handle adversity throughout the game of football and both of these teams have done that and that's why you see 'championship' behind each of our names when you talk Legends Division Champion and SEC (East) Division Champion," Dantonio said. "Great champions overcome a tremendous amount of adversity."

The Team Welcome Dinner, held at the A La Carte Event Pavilion in Tampa, was the first official event of bowl week for Michigan State (10-3) and Georgia (10-3).

Shaking Out The Sugar Plums

The Spartans left East Lansing at approximately 8 a.m. on Monday, with basketball coach Tom Izzo among those wishing them well during their send-off. The Spartans began getting situated in Tampa near noon and wasted little time in getting to the practice field.

The Spartans worked out in tee shirts and shorts at Tampa Jesuit High School, with humid temperatures in the mid-70s. The Spartans focused on conditioning in an hour-long, non-contact practice as the coaching staff anticipated that many players ate too much and didn't work out enough during their trips home for Christmas.

"We'll go hard the first couple and then level it off a little bit as we go," said Dantonio, who wore black shorts and a white tee during the workout. "We're just going to run around a little bit today, sort of get acclimated to the weather a little bit, and run."

Dantonio welcomed the heat and high humidity. Last year, the Spartans practiced all week in unseasonably cool conditions and then were challenged by on-field temperatures near 90 degrees on the synthetic surface at the Capital One Bowl during last year's 49-7 loss to Alabama.

"It's great to be down in Florida," Dantonio said.

More About Mindset

The lead line of questioning for Michigan State players and coaches since Dec. 4 has been whether the Spartans will have a proper level of focus and motivation heading into the Outback Bowl, having narrowly missed out on a trip to the Rose Bowl due to the Spartans' 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 3.

Players and coaches seemed to say all the right things during interview opportunities in East Lansing from Dec. 4, on. Dantonio still feels good about the team's psychology.

"We have a good mindset," he said. "Focused. We've got to wait and see when we get to game day, but right now I think we're focused."

"Our players understand what's at stake here a little bit. We have to come down and play well against a great Georgia team. They know the challenge that is in front of them but at the same time the opportunity to win 11 games and win a game in Florida and a bowl game is one of our main goals."

Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins directed the captains and seniors to put on a smiling face from the moment they walked onto the field for the first day of bowl practice in East Lansing on Dec. 16. He wanted to help create an upbeat, constructive atmosphere, and he feels he and his teammates had no problem attaining one.

"We're over it. That's water over the bridge," Cousins said of the loss to Wisconsin. "The opponent we're playing is as good as anyone in the country and it will be a marquee game, a marquee matchup and it will be a great opportunity for us.

"I think if we are able to beat Georgia it would say a lot about this team, a lot about this program, a lot about this senior class. That's why we are so grateful and so excited to be a part of this game."

What about the challenge of resetting goals?

"We feel although the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl are no longer attainable this year, we feel like the opportunity to beat an SEC team and get to 11 wins for two years in a row and play in a national spotlight game, those are big steps for this program if we can get a win," Cousins said.

All The Proper Rest

After last year's terrible performance in the Capital One Bowl, Dantonio has changed many aspects of Michigan State's daily routine for this year's bowl game in Florida. The Spartans are practicing at mid-day, near 1 p.m., this week, rather than the morning practices of Orlando a year ago.

Dantonio said he wanted the team to be acclimated to the mid-day heat, as the game will be played at 1 p.m. on Monday. Also he wanted to make sure the players were getting enough sleep the night before practice, thus later wake-up calls.

"We backed things up a little bit, really just to make sure that our guys are sleeping," Dantonio said. "I think nutrition and rest is going to be as important as anything. So we are going to make sure our guys get rest, but at the same time we're going to get the job done. We will still allot that four hours of time between meetings and the time we have to practice and etc, and travel time. We're just looking to change up some things to be as productive as possible.

"Our guys will work hard, so we'll be all right.

In Brief...

  • Georgia did not practice on Monday. Their first practice will be conducted at 9:35 a.m. on Tuesday.

  • The teams will attend the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Breakfast at 7 a.m. on Tuesday.

  • Selected players from both teams will visit the St. Joseph's Children's Hospital from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

  • Wives and guests of the school's coaches and administrators will attend the Roy's Ladies Luncheon from noon to 2 p.m. The luncheon and fashion show will be held at Roy's Hawaiian Cuisine Restaurant.

  • Players will have an option of attending the Tampa Bay Lightning NHL game at 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the St. Pete Times Forum.

    Comp's News & Views

    NEWS: Dantonio announced on Monday that freshman long snapper Matt Giampapa has been suspended from the bowl game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Redshirt sophomore Steve Moore, a walk-on from Pinconning, will elevate to first-string punter.

    "He's snapped before," Dantonio said of Moore. "We'll be fine."

    VIEWS: Giampapa was a terrific long-snapper during the course of the season, but he only narrowly beat out Moore for the job during August camp. In fact there was no clear-cut winner heading into the season opener. Both long snappers were given a chance to work in live game conditions in the opening game against Youngstown State before the staff settled on one full-timer. So I see no reason to dispute Dantonio's claim that the Spartans will be fine.

    I give Dantonio a nod of approval for handing down some discipline to a player who handles an important if often-overlooked job. Good long snappers are rarely noticed, but if there are problems in that area, it can cost you a game.

    Was it easier for Dantonio to suspend Giampapa due to MSU's luxury of depth at the position? Probably so. Would Dantonio have been as quick to suspend Giampapa if there was no proven player behind him? We'll never know.

    Is this suspension a good signal and deterrent to the rest of the roster? Absolutely. Dantonio hasn't had many chances to publicly hand out disciplinary measures in the past 14 months, but this transgression and coaching reaction surely serves as a teaching point.

    NEWS: Dantonio also announced that sophomore wide receiver Bennie Fowler will not play in this game due to continued problems with an injured foot.

    "I don't think it's a surgery thing," Dantonio said. "He just has to be off it."

    Fowler redshirted in 2009 while missing the entire fall practice season with a similar injury in his other foot.

    "So we just deal with it and keep moving," Dantonio said.

    Fowler saw action in only five games this year. He hasn't seen action since the mid-season mark. Dantonio indicated that MSU will apply for a special sixth year of eligibility for Fowler.

    VIEWS: This is a disappointing ending to a disappointing season for the talented, 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver.

    I expected Fowler to rise in the playing group and possibly surpass Keith Nichol and/or Keshawn Martin to become Cousins' second-favored target at the wide out position. But Fowler rarely got on the field to begin to add polish to the immense talent he flashed at times last year while making 14 catches during his redshirt-freshman season, including a 49-yard TD against Alabama and a 21-yarder on a punt fake at Northwestern on the fabled "Mouse Trap" play. He also earned a start last year at Iowa.

    Michigan State's passing game did fine without Fowler this season, with Nichol playing solid football and Martin erupting with a fantastic second half of the season. But the Spartans could have used more development out of Fowler this year in order to help Michigan State's offense make the transition to 2012 in which the Spartans will have to replace its top three wide outs.

    It will be interesting to see if Fowler can make it back to good health in time to get on the field for spring practice. Spring drills will mark an important opportunity for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell to build a rapport with a young batch of receivers competing to step up into starting roles. Fowler will be the most experienced of the group by far. But will he be healthy and stay healthy? Mark that down as the first key question mark of 2012.

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