Labor Day Look-Back: Spartans & Wolverines

  • BY Lisa Byington
  • 9.02.13

Hope everyone is having a great Labor Day Weekend!

I am so glad college football is back … and like last year, I like to share with you some notes from my weekend. I can’t always fit in all the stories I want when I am reporting on the sidelines, or give a whole lot of time to each one, so here are some thoughts/leftovers from production meetings and game observations…listed in order of the games I did this weekend. Michigan State: Friday night. Michigan: Saturday afternoon.


Raindrops keep falling on my head: 

MSU officials met Friday morning to discuss an evacuation plan if lightning struck. And boy did it! Maybe it has something to do with the karma of Western Michigan? Remember the Broncos were a part of a lightning-cancelled game against Michigan two years ago!

Best line of the day came from Amy Fouty, turf manager at Spartan Stadium. When I asked her about the condition of the grass after the downpour, she said, “Our grass is grown by Spartans and managed by Spartans, of course it will be OK.”


Tough situation for all involved. Andrew Maxwell even admitted to Dantonio in the preseason that this is “the most pressure he has felt in his life.”

But Maxwell has seen this before. He relayed to us a story about watching the battle between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol years ago. Maxwell saw an “edge” and a “chip” in Cousins, which wasn’t always obvious to some back then. Maxwell talked about the game against CMU in 2009. With about seven minutes to play, Cousins threw a TD pass to B.J. Cunningham to take the lead at 27-20, immediately after, Cousins ran over to the sideline to Mark Dantonio and said, “If you keep me in this game, we win it!”

Cousins elaborated later, “Unfortunately, CMU had the ball the rest of the game, and we never got it back.”

It’s true. A CMU score, subsequent onside kick and field goal, and the Chips drained out the final seven-plus minutes to stun MSU. And yet, Cousins’ emotion left a lasting impression on Maxwell, “I remember thinking, “that was just awesome.”

One other note, Mark Dantonio tried to be transparent in the QB race during the preseason, at least I should say, INTERNALLY transparent. He told us during our Thursday production meetings, that after Damion Terry had had his “breakout scrimmage”, Dantonio asked all the quarterbacks who they thought the best one was at the time, “They all said Terry,” Dantonio said, “so I had to put him in the mix.” It will be interesting to see if he pulls the trigger on Terry, to put him in the “game” mix here shortly.

#30 to #30 

Riley Bullough is trying his best to be a solid running back for MSU. Dantonio said he’s studying film from Le’Veon Bell and Jehuu Caulcrick. I contacted Caulcrick Friday afternoon, and Jehuu told me he is “going to be in contact with Riley WEEKLY, and BEFORE and AFTER games.” Jehuu explained he coached Bullough to be physical, told him to “be the hammer not the nail”…and if he ran soft, “I will call him out on twitter.”  I didn’t see any tweets from the former #30 to the current #30 on Friday. But be certain, a full critique is coming from Caulcrick this week.

Cinderella Conklin

Enjoyed visiting with Plainwell’s Darren Conklin, Jack’s father and high school football coach. His son got his first career start at right tackle on Friday, but two years ago, he couldn’t even get a sniff from a school.

I asked Darren over the phone, “Where did you try to get offers from?” He paused and said, “The Midwest.”

Jack Conklin only got offers from a couple of DII schools. In Darren’s words, his son thought he could compete at the DI level, and he wanted to wait it out. The lack of interest frustrated Jack, but didn’t discourage him. “Jack is like a labrador retriever,” Darren joked, “everyday is a good day, and his tail is always wagging.”

So they decided to enroll Jack at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, a well-known prep school that has churned out some NFL talent. Darren Conklin wrote about 20 emails (on a SuperBowl Sunday) to some of the DI schools they had spoken to in the process, and only MSU’s Mark Staten responded.

“Michigan State said if you’re going to pay for a year of prep school, why don’t you pay for a semester here at MSU, and we will see if something opens up,” Darren remembered.

Irony of the story? Both Darren and Jack’s mother, Jennifer, attended the University of Michigan. Darren was wearing green and white in the stands on Friday night, and said, “I don’t have any Michigan stuff anymore, I gave it all away….except for the diploma.”

Speaking of those WOLVERINES … 

Gardner Growing

Brady Hoke said beyond his “changed” demeanor in the huddle, Devin Gardner has definitely shown signs of maturity. “He has enhanced the way he studies an opponent,” Hoke said. “Two years ago, he wouldn’t be texting (Offensive Coordinator) Al Borges when he was watching tape. He would have waited until the next day.”

But Gardner still loves his cartoons and Bugs Bunny. Oh yeah, and he now has cable TV … which is something he didn’t have as Denard Robinson’s roommate.

Manning influence 

Devin Gardner had a busy summer. From the Elite 11 camp and working out with QB guru George Whitfield, Jr., to the Manning Passing Academy.

The biggest thing he learned from the Mannings? “There are a lot of different ways to lead,” Gardner told us in production meetings Friday afternoon. “Peyton and Eli are so different, but they are both leaders.”

Gardner also picked up a few ways to make in-game adjustments. From his perspective, watching film of defenses does not always translate to how teams defend him. “I am a dual-threat guy,” he said. “Sometimes the only tape I have to watch on teams is not going to be the way they defend me. (The Mannings) taught me how to adjust in a game, adjust on the fly, and be flexible.”

Deep D-Line 

With a deep and talented (though inexperienced) defensive line, Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison is giving his d-linemen the freedom to rotate on their own.

“Frank (Clark) might go five (straight plays), and Mario (Ojemudia) might go three, but they know what their number is,” Mattison said. “It works as long as they are consistent. You figure you have about 55 or 65 plays in a game for the defense, if you rotate guys, how many plays are you gonna get? So the message is, play as hard as you can go, and when you can’t, you come out.”

More Michigan … 

I am saving some other goodies/nuggets for a few weeks, when I return to Ann Arbor for the Akron game.

Chat soon!











about the author

Lisa Byington has worked for BTN, FOX, CBS, Turner, and ESPN. She earned her BSJ and MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She also played four years of basketball and two years of soccer for the Wildcats.